A Memorial Tribute to Dr. Jay Lehr
On January 20, 2023, I received the very sad news of the death of my dear friend, Dr. Jay Lehr, scientist, entrepreneur, father, husband, and all around extraordinary human being. And although my heart is heavy with grief, I wish to share my thoughts and feelings toward this incredible man so that those who knew him, and feel similarly can, hopefully, find some solace in these words.
Where do I start with a man such as Jay Lehr? I suppose at the beginning of our relationship…
In 1991, when Jay and I first collaborated on a project, he had already a list of accomplishments that VERY few people achieve in a lifetime including: graduating from Princeton at the age of 20, achieving the first PhD in groundwater hydrology in the U.S., establishing the National Groundwater Association, authoring or co-authoring several dozen books, and testifying before congress on numerous occasions about groundwater and environmental issues.
I, on the other hand, was making my first foray into the pro-liberty trenches with a newsletter I founded, The Free Market Environmentalist. My mission with that newsletter was to show:
1. The vast majority of the so-called environmental scientific research had been hopelessly corrupted with an anti-industrial bias, and
2. The legitimate environmental issues of the day such as water and air pollution and could be addressed within a free market framework with an expanded definition of property rights that included the contributions of nature (e.g., volatile organic compounds being emitted into the air via natural vegetation.)
Lucky for me, someone forwarded Jay my first two essays of that publication. Upon receiving the essays he then proceeded to ask me if they could be reprinted in his current work, an ambitious book project he was editing that involved over 30 contributors, Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns. I was thrilled to be asked and could not believe my good fortune at being included in a work with some of the most accomplished scientists of the day.
The Aftermath of Rational Readings…
It’s easy to be optimistic when things are going well, but what about when our world gets turned upside down? How many of us could handle it as well as Jay Lehr did shortly after the publication of Rational Readings…?
As Jay was putting the final touches on Rational Readings… , he informed all of his contributors, including me, that the EPA was after him for alleged improprieties regarding his grant fund activity. None of us believed the trumped up nonsense by the EPA, but, unfortunately, they were able to sell their fiction to a judge who put Jay behind bars for six months in addition to taking away the organization he had helped found, the National Ground Water Association.
I still remember the nearly uncontrollable rage I felt toward them and the terrible fear that Jay would never recover from the injustice. Silly me… Jay did what only the rarest of men could conceive of– let alone actually achieve — he took the ultimate example of a “lemon” and made “lemonade” by making his time behind bars in his words:
“the most productive period of my life.”
Bottom line: You can NOT cage the spirit of a man such as Jay Lehr. The body yes, but the spirit — NEVER! By witnessing that extraordinary chapter of his life unfold, I had my first glimpse of the most fearless and indomitable man I have ever known…
Over the Years
Jay survived the betrayal and attempted character assassination by the EPA and went on to a long illustrious career as the Science Director of the Heartland Institute.
Over the years I got to see many sides of this extraordinary man in small gatherings, speaking in front of professional groups, and occasionally in meals we would share together.
Great men sometimes have trouble relating to people on a simple one to one level. Not Jay! Whether he was in front of thousands or having dinner with close friends and family, the warmth and magnetic charisma of his personality always shone through.
Whether he was jumping out of airplanes (he held the world record for consecutive monthly skydives at 34 years / 11 months) holding court at professional meetings, playing competitive sports into his mid-80s, and all his other myriad of activities — he did it all with a zest for living that I have never witnessed before and am quite sure will never see again.
In Recent Days
But of all extraordinary aspects of his character that I witnessed, none amazed me more than the childlike wonder with which he looked at the world up until the day he died. Just a few months before his untimely death he and his writing partner, Tom Harris, Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition, asked to interview me. It was a wide ranging interview on a variety of political/cultural topics that we had discussed over the years.
What amazed me were the questions that he posed to me prior to the interview. Even though I had worked with the ideas we addressed in our interview for well over a decade, Jay brought his childlike wonder to the table with penetrating questions that made me re-think my positions and resulted in a wonderfully enlightening exchange for all of us.
I have barely touched the surface in describing this extraordinary man and his love of life and all its possibilities. But as I was writing this tribute I realized – I can never do justice to all that he was. However, I think I can hit on one aspect of his character that we can ALL remember and celebrate whenever we think of this truly extraordinary human being. It came to me as I was writing the closing for this tribute and listening to the song “If Today Was Your Last Day” by the pop group, Nickelback.
As I listened to their singing, I realized — No one has ever lived every day as if it was his last as fully and intensely as the man I have had the great honor to know as a friend, the one and only Dr. Jay Lehr.
And so to those of you reading this tribute, I hope I have given you a sense of the extraordinary spirit that dwelled inside this man– and knowing who and what he was you will celebrate that spirit that was his and use it to inspire you in the times of your life as I have used it in mine.
– Mike Gemmell, founder and president, Restore Our American Republic