“Here’s the thing about Bill Lehr.”
With that introduction, Alice Anne Schwab begins to explain how the Susquehanna Art Museum has benefited from William Lehr Jr.’s long-time leadership.
“He generally says little in a meeting or assembled group, so when he does speak, it is almost always going to be profound and vital to the cause,” said Schwab, SAM’s executive director. “I listen very carefully because that’s when he’s going to utter the brilliance. And then he’s out the door!”
For years, Lehr may have been best known locally as a top Hershey executive and then as president and CEO of Capital BlueCross. But since his retirement a few years ago, he’s increased his already substantial involvement in the arts, now serving as president of SAM’s board and in several other key positions.
“He is highly respected in the business community as well as the arts community, and that respect translates to many positives for us,” Schwab said. “He contributes financially, which is obviously hugely important to the success of nonprofit arts organizations, but he is also tremendously generous with his time. He’s truly the busiest retired guy I know.”
Americans for the Arts, a national network of arts organizations, supporters and activists, has now recognized Lehr’s contributions, recently presenting him with its annual Legacy Award.
“We’re excited to be honoring Mr. Lehr,” said Inga Vitols, the group’s spokesperson. “He shines a light on what has been possible with the dedication of leaders who believe passionately in the cause.”
Indeed, Lehr is very passionate about the arts.
“In all permutations,” he said, “not only because I learn from them and enjoy them myself, but because they are an essential element in the development and maintenance of a vibrant community.”
What couldn’t he live without?
“Thank goodness I don’t have to choose just one, but, if I did, it would be music,” Lehr said. “We attend Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz and Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra concerts. We also attend shows at Theatre Harrisburg, Hershey Theatre, Gamut Theatre Group and Open Stage.”
Lehr’s stint at SAM is actually his second. He also served on the board in the early 2000s, aiding its move to a new building, said Schwab.
“His presence as a dedicated helper in the museum’s time of great need was a catalyst for several other great community leaders to come on board,” she said. “Bill came back to the board at the end of 2015 and was elected board president soon after. In September, he was reelected for another year.”
Despite Lehr’s quiet demeanor, he is one of those people who, “behind the scenes of any preforming arts or cultural organization, makes it happen,” said Jeff Woodruff, executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.
Lehr came on the board of HSO in 2006 and stepped down 10 years later because of term limits. He spent the last four as chairman.
“Bill continued to be a soft-spoken man, playing behind the scenes, but in his own giving way, he leads by example,” said Woodruff. “He has been very generous offering funds out of his pocket and encouraging others to give.”
Harrisburg-area arts are so important to Lehr that he retired early to have ample time to contribute the most he could. Over the years, he’s been a board member for dozens of organizations, including Whitaker Center, Harrisburg Symphony Association, the Cultural Enrichment Fund and Metro Arts of the Capital Region (now Jump Street).
“Bill was a model board member, a strong advocate for HSO who knows how to run a meeting and someone who attended every concert and event,” Woodruff said.
Lehr has seen many changes in the local arts scene over the years. Some organizations have come and gone, though many others have taken root and become successful. One notable change has been the prominence of women, who head many nonprofits today.
Among the women Lehr says he admires globally is Mother Theresa. Locally, he points to the leadership of Janice Black, president and CEO of the Foundation for Enhancing Communities, and Kathleen Pavelko, president and CEO of WITF.
When he’s not busy with advocacy, Lehr enjoys being with his three children and five grandchildren. He and his wife Beverlee, an artist herself, are also tireless travelers, having visited 70 different countries so far.
“We’re working on several others to go on our list,” Lehr laughed.
But being home in the Harrisburg area keeps him plenty busy, as well. After all, there’s always one more concert to attend; one more play to go to; one more exhibit to see; and, of course, one more organization that needs his advice and assistance.