How John Lehman lived his dream, shaped America’s strength and became a business leader.
by Pat Olsen
Businessman, role model, patriot … John Lehman ’64 is so many things that attempting to list them all is enough to make your head spin. Not only has he moved among three careers in his lifetime — he's made it look easy.
After earning a degree in international relations from Saint Joseph’s, Lehman served in the military — briefly in the Air Force Reserve, then for 25 years as an aviator in the U.S. Navy Reserve. During that time, he served on the National Security Council in the Nixon administration, shaping foreign policy under National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan tapped him to serve as Secretary of the Navy, a position he held for six years, all while maintaining his currency in carrier jets and helicopters.
Lehman achieved the rank of captain before retiring. His flying career took him through four three-week tours of duty in Vietnam and three in the Middle East, among many others. In recent years, he has been an advisor to Sen. Mitt Romney and the late Sen. John McCain in their presidential campaigns. He also served on the 9/11 Commission, formed by President George W. Bush to investigate the circumstances that led to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
But public service is only part of Lehman’s story. In 1977, he founded the Abington Corporation, a defense consulting company where he was president and director until joining the Reagan administration. After serving as Secretary of the Navy, he was a managing director for PaineWebber, an investment and brokerage firm. And in 1990, he became a founding partner of J.F. Lehman & Company, a leading private equity firm focusing on the defense, aerospace and engineering industries.
Recently Saint Joseph’s University Magazine spoke with Lehman about his various positions, influences that have shaped him, and things he still finds important.
How did you come to choose Saint Joseph’s?
I went to LaSalle College High School, a Catholic prep school in Philadelphia, and chose St. Joe’s for college because it had a very good faculty, especially Jim Dougherty, a professor of international relations. Also, my dad went there, which had a big influence on the decision.
Would you say it was preordained that you join ROTC at St. Joe’s?
I come from a naval family. My fourth great-grandfather was a privateer during the American Revolution, and my great-grandfather was a surgeon's assistant in the Union Navy during the Civil War. My dad was captain of an LCS gunship, a heavily armed surface combatant during World War II in the Pacific. I served, and my son John III, was a naval aviator flying Prowlers.
How did the calling to military service manifest in you at a young age?
I always wanted to be a Navy pilot. Growing up, I lived under the flight path, about 10 miles away from Willow Grove Naval Air Station, and I just loved watching the planes. My dad stayed in the reserves after the war, and he started taking me to lunch at the officer's club at Willow Grove when I was about eight. I met a lot of fighter pilots in their leather jackets, and when I saw them in their fighters overhead, I said, ‘I am going to be one of those.’
St. Joe’s had no Navy ROTC, so I joined its Air Force ROTC. But they said I was color blind (my wife Barbara, agrees) and couldn't be a pilot. I could easily pass the Navy test for color blindness, however, and I wanted to be in the Navy, so I dropped ROTC altogether and took the tests for Navy pilot training. Then I got a scholarship to Cambridge University and continued my education. Lakenheath Air Force Base was near Cambridge, so I was able to enroll in the Air Force Reserve there, and when I graduated, I returned to the Navy Reserve, and began pilot training.
How did your military service inform your career in business and your entrepreneurial bent?
There’s no better experience for a young college graduate than the Navy, or any of the services, Navy being the best. You learn leadership, discipline and accountability, which are the keys to any career. When I was Secretary of the Navy for six years, I spent the majority of my time building ships and airplanes, negotiating with defense contractors and, of course, balancing the Navy budget which was close to $100 billion, so it was natural when I left the Navy to move into business and finance. After 18 years in Washington, I moved to New York, but I’m still a Pennsylvanian and always have been; I have a farm in Bucks County.
You served on the 9/11 Commission, convened after the 2001 terrorist attacks. What was that like?
I was one of 10 commissioners. We had a staff of 82 professionals, drawn from all sectors of the intelligence and military community. We investigated what actually happened: the background, the causes of the attack, our vulnerability and the reasons we were not able to stop it. Then we wrote a best-selling book, The 9/11 Commission Report, which still sells well. I recommend it.
You’re a strong proponent of increasing America’s naval strength. Why?
During the Reagan presidency, rebuilding our naval strength was a major factor in bringing about the end of the Cold War. Once the war was over, we were the only superpower left, and defense budgets were cut, appropriately, about 40 percent. But then, as new disturbers of the peace emerged, we did not respond; we kept cutting. Now we are in a situation where we are failing to deter a number of potential adversaries, starting with the Russians and the North Koreans, the Iranians and, in a different way, the Chinese. We've got to rebuild our capability to deter, which means to make it clear to these potential adversaries that if they tried to use military power against us, they would suffer far more than they could possibly achieve. That's all deterrence is. We cannot do it with words or diplomacy alone. Diplomacy is the shadow cast by military and naval power.
You’ve returned to St. Joe’s several times to speak to students and to attend your reunion. That speaks of a strong loyalty.
St. Joe's has always been a value-based institution, which is not easy to find these days, particularly in universities, so I very much appreciate the education I got there. I believe that alumni from institutions like St. Joe’s, LaSalle College High School, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cambridge University have an obligation to be available to help their alma maters as best they can when called upon. That's why I spend a fair amount of time involved with my various universities and schools and help students who are applying, and why I visit the campuses to speak whenever asked.
You addressed the SJU Veterans Entrepreneurial Jumpstart program in 2017. What advice did you give them?
Those were veterans who were interested in business. I reminded them that having the benefit of military or naval service makes them worth a great deal to the business world, as well as to philanthropy and academia, and so forth. It’s uniquely valuable preparation for the discipline needed for success in business and finance.
You visited John McCain every month during the last year of his life. How did that come about?
I met John McCain in 1973, soon after his release from the Hanoi Hilton, and we became good friends. As Naval aviators we often crossed paths, and we worked together when he became the Navy lobbyist in the Senate. He worked for me in that capacity during my first six months as Secretary of the Navy. We had additional opportunities to work together to support the Navy when he was elected to Congress and subsequently to the Senate, where he joined the Armed Services Committee.
In 2000, during his first run for President, I was no longer in the government. I joined his campaign, and again when he ran in 2008, and traveled with him all over the country. Between 2008 and 2018, I was a member of his advisory council and a trustee of the McCain Institute in Arizona and Washington, often traveling with him. He was a life-long insatiable reader, absorbing one to three books each week, and we exchanged books constantly.
When his terminal illness was diagnosed, we continued to work together, and when he left Washington in December 2017 to work from his ranch in Sedona, Arizona, I visited him regularly until he passed away. In all that time he was never anything but upbeat and positive with his droll sense of humor always active.
You’ve had such an enviable career. To what would you attribute it? Hard work accompanied by a little bit of luck? Drive? Pursuing opportunities that presented themselves?
All of the above. But nobody really succeeds without failing; everybody makes mistakes as they build their career and their life. Students starting out should understand that they're not going to bat 1,000 all the time. No human being does. It's important to recognize the role that luck plays, but understand that most of luck really is being adequately prepared for opportunities as they appear. I had very good mentors, a strong family, and great teachers, coaches and military superiors.
Pat Olsen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Diversity Woman, and other publications.