‘Tom’s field of dreams’

By Maggie Fazeli Fard

Community Life, Aug. 26, 2010

More than 100 people gathered on Sulak Lane last Thursday afternoon, chowing down on burgers and corn on the cob, singing along to familiar tunes by the Who and the Byrds, and vying for shade beneath the trees until the last warm specks of sunlight disappeared behind nearby roofs. It seemed like a scene out of a movie, a stereotypical late-summer hurrah as friends, old and new, shook hands, doled out hugs, told stories and wiped away tears shed as much out of laughter as sadness.

Tom Lehmann, the man whom all had gathered to remember and celebrate as the creator of Woodland Gardens, a unique housing complex for disabled people, definitely would have approved.

“In the immortal words of Tom,” said Jack Kreismer, Lehmann’s longtime friend, as he took the microphone: “While you’re up, can you get me a beer?”

Lehmann, a Montvale native, died in June at the age of 57 of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after nearly four decades of wheelchair confinement. When Lehmann was 18, a dive into shallow water at Point Pleasant Beach broke his neck. Classified as a quadriplegic, Lehmann suddenly couldn’t walk, couldn’t bathe, couldn’t get dressed and couldn’t feed himself.

But Lehmann wasn’t concerned with what he couldn’t do.

“It’s when you always feel sorry for yourself that you lose,” Lehmann wrote to his brother, Jim, during his stay in rehab after breaking his neck in 1971. “I can’t be a member of the ‘poor-me club.’”

Rather, with help and encouragement from his family and friends, Lehmann focused on what he could do.

Lehmann loved drinking beer, recalled Kreismer, holding up a mug that Lehmann had used since his spring training days as a track star at Pascack Hills High School, and he loved playing cards; feet and powered wheelchairs inched forward as audience members tried to get a closer look at Tom’s worn but still sturdy wooden cardholder, crafted by his father. Lehmann loved summer barbecues – he left his prized grill to Kreismer – and he loved to sing.

“Tom was a quadriplegic for 39 years – but he still loved a good time,” said Kreismer.

But what Lehmann wanted to do most of all was to find a way to gain some semblance of independence in spite of his disability. To this end, Lehmann learned to drive, got a degree from Ramapo College and found a job counseling Bergen Community College students who were disabled like him.

Then, in 1979, Lehmann had an idea: Why couldn’t disabled adults live on their own? At a time when there were no housing facilities for disabled adults in Bergen County, Lehmann spent the next six years campaigning for one right in Park Ridge.

“Tom didn’t realize the obstacles he would face,” said his brother, Jim. “Zoning variances, approvals from every level of government – state, county, local. He was told the site was in a flood zone, which it wasn’t.”

But Lehmann’s famed sense of humor never wavered, be it in the face of adversity or the ridiculous.

“Someone said to him, ‘But it’s next to a graveyard,’” said Jim, referring to the Sulak Lane site’s proximity to the Pascack Reformed Church’s 200-year-old cemetery. “Tom said, ‘That’s all right. That means it’ll be quiet.’”

In 1986, 15 years after Lehmann’s fateful accident, the 36-unit apartment complex named Woodland Gardens opened on Sulak Lane. Assembleywoman Charlotte Vanderwalk attended the facility’s ribbon-cutting.

“I was so impressed and so sure that we’d have many facilities built like this by now. I was wrong,” said Vandervalk. “It didn’t happen. But it should. And if anyone wants to do it right, they should see how it’s been done right here.”

After hearing about Lehmann’s death two months ago, Park Ridge Councilman Steve Hopper made it his mission to honor Lehmann’s name and memory for more than an afternoon – what County Executive Dennis McNerney called “an exceptional day for an exceptional person.” Hopper worked with local and county government officials to make sure Lehmann would not be forgotten by re-dedicating the facility.

The complex’s new moniker came as no surprise, but was nonetheless kept under wraps – the new sign literally covered with a sheet – for the course of Thursday’s event. The unveiling finally revealed a large blue and gold sign, and the facility’s new name: Lehman Gardens.

“This is a much nicer sign than the sign they had before – I guess Mr. Woodland didn’t do anything,” joked Tom’s brother, Jim.

As the band played The Byrds’s “There is a Season,” one of Lehmann’s favorites, the lyrics seemed to ring especially true:

A time to be born, a time to die,

A time to plant, a time to reap,

A time to kill, a time to heal,

A time to laugh, a time to weep,

To everything – turn, turn, turn,

There is a season – turn, turn, turn,

And a time for every purpose under heaven.

“Look around – this is Tom’s ‘field of dreams’,” Jim told the crowd. “Thank you for understanding the magnitude of what he accomplished. Tom never would have asked for this day. But he sure would have treasured it.”

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