COLUMBIA — The Monday after Easter, Mary Lehmann, 85, walks from her room at the Regency Hotel to the post office to send off two letters. She’s worried about one of them.
Over the weekend, she found a letter in an old file from a friend that she never responded to. It’s from 1972. She’s written her friend back, has stamped the envelope and has written the address perfectly. But the person might not live there anymore. She’s not sure how long the post office forwards mail. Maybe they have the current address listed somewhere.
As she walks, she moves with abnormal fluidity and pace for someone her age. Her gray hair stops short of her shoulders and her blue eyes stare forward. Glasses dangle around her neck.
After entering the post office, she announces to a bald man with glasses behind the counter that she has an “unusual request.” Jovial and expressive, she pulls an envelope from her bag and places it on the counter. “I have a letter from 40 years ago,” she says, “and I’m worried they may have moved.”
“That address has little use,” the clerk says. The postal service only forwards mail for up to a year. He says perhaps she should check Facebook.
Lehmann says she’s not really a Facebook person but wants to learn to use Twitter. Maybe she’ll find her friend there. She puts the letter back in her bag and removes another.
“No complications with that address,” she says and pushes an envelope with a “U.K.” address across the counter. “Except she might be dead.”
She pays for postage and leaves.
Back in her room, Lehmann says she’s pleased to be staying at the Regency. It’s not fancy, but it does things nicely. Sure, it could use a little redecoration, but it’s simple and unpretentious. And the staff is wonderful. It has everything she needs.
Which is good, because Lehmann is not a guest, and her room is not for the week. For $30 a night, for most of the past year, the Regency has been her home, and she its only permanent resident.
And why should she live elsewhere? She’s downtown. She walks or takes the bus anywhere she wants. She has Internet. TV. Breakfast. Housekeeping. “It’s not like those dismal retirement centers,” she says.
“I like the idea of a hotel. I guess the idea of letting up a little on housework and apartment stuff appeals to me,” she says. “This was such an ideal place.”
Lehmann wants to stay as long as she can.
Which is bad, because by the end of the year, she probably won’t live there, and the Regency probably won’t exist. In February, the City Council approved a plan to replace it with a boutique hotel and a 300-car garage. The project has been delayed until a hotel chain is secured, but the developer wants to begin demolition soon.
Lehmann says she’ll figure out where to move “when the big ball is swinging.” She laughs.
For now, she lives at the end of a fourth-floor hallway in a 10-by-15 foot room that faces out toward a wide-open view of Columbia.
It’s a clear day, and the top of the city’s water tower peeks out above rows of flat-roofed apartments and businesses. The hotel’s glassed-in hallways make Lehmann feel as if she’s on the deck of a boat.
She leans closer to the glass and looks down toward the pool and patio below. “I don’t hang out at the pool, but I do my swimming,” she says with a smile. “And I love that — what do you call it — Jacuzzi? I bounce back and forth between the pool and the Jacuzzi.”
She spends most of her time in her room, where she alternates among “loafing,” reading, researching and writing. She hasn’t been in Columbia long, but she’s worried about the city. She holds up a newspaper article about rising gas prices. She talks about the half-empty garage on Fifth Street. She points to the color printout of the Regency she’s taped to her wall. She asks: Why are they tearing this place down? Why are we getting a 300-car garage?
She’s always been fascinated by the intersection of economic development and the environment. Both topics concern her, and she doesn’t make it a secret. She jokes that she’s a “gloom and doomer.”
“I don’t feel I can retire and keep quiet,” she says. “Things are not going right.” She wants to create an organization that gives balance to the “headlong rush to increase growth, increase consumption, depend more on big corporations, depend more on cars.”
Conversationally, Lehmann seems inexhaustible. When she talks about subjects she’s fascinated by, which is often, her eyes stare past you and become stuck on a background object as she slips deep into thought. At times, she talks, tunnel vision-style, about the need to address diminishing natural resources. Inevitably, she catches herself.
“Listen to me going on. This must bore you,” she’ll say. “I shouldn’t be talking so long on this pet subject.”
But that pet subject is important to her — it’s part of the reason why, at 84, she moved to a city where she knew nobody.
Lehmann arrived in Columbia last summer from Austin, Texas, where she spent most of the past 10 years. In Austin, she ran a nonprofit foundation called Keep the Land, which lobbied for the city of Austin to lease its airport instead of selling it to a private developer. Austin sold the airport.
She points to a book on a shelf in her room — "Power, Money, and the People" — “This book is the inside dope on Austin.” She picks up another one, "The Party’s Over." She gave each member of the Austin City Council a copy. She chuckles. “A lot of good that did.”
Austin lost its ways, Lehmann decided, and it was time to go. She was born and raised in St. Louis and still has a daughter and a son living there. But like Austin, St. Louis was too far gone. Too ridden with developers. Too big to go back.
In the 1980s, she lived in Jefferson City and Boonville, where she hosted a show on KOPN/89.5 FM, “Plant Slant,” and ran an ecological newsletter, “Ladybug.” She remembered liking Columbia, which is just the right size, and she wanted to become involved with KOPN again.
Which brought her to that room.
Her door opens about 60 degrees before hitting a bicycle and unveils a space stuffed with possessions reflective of their inquisitive owner. Dozens of books jostle for limited room. “Politics of Chile,” “Sharing the Earth,” and the Holy Bible are lined up along the headboard of her bed. “History of American Law” and “The Oil Depletion Protocol” are on a cluttered table by the door.
From her nightstand, she picks up “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,” a gift from one of her three children, Fritz Lehmann. The book’s sunny outlook runs counter to some of her beliefs. Inside, an inscription wishes her a happy birthday and asks that she carefully read chapters six and seven on population and energy. “They absolutely demolish my arguments,” she says.
The bike’s basket overflows with magazines. Newspaper clippings are splayed out on a couch. Lehmann tries to read through USA Today, the Columbia Missourian and the Columbia Daily Tribune each day.
Black and white photos of her children rest atop the TV, not far from an old Rolodex sitting on a blinking alarm clock, albeit one displaying the right time. A photo of her former husband when he was a young boy hangs on the far wall by a poster of Africa.
The room has one bed. The king size frame was a waste, so she gave it “double-usefulness.” She propped up wooden shutters and draped a blue comforter over them, partitioning off one third of the bed into a questionably comfortable couch. Across from the bed-couch is a loveseat and a small table with a black Macbook surrounded by notes and papers. The “cockpit,” she calls it.
By the fringe of the cockpit, Lehmann pulls a photo album from a low shelf and flips through the laminated pages.
There’s her daughter planting a tree in St. Louis. Lehmann and Fritz in Senegal, building a terra cotta sculpture for a village. And there she is at the “Battle of Seattle,” the massive World Trade Organization protest in 1999. Next, a photo of a shirtless man having tear gas rinsed from his eyes.
There’s Lehmann at her daughter’s wedding. Scribbled notes from grandchildren. And a photo clipped from the Austin American-Statesman from April 28, 2001. “It wasn't all smiles and handshakes at the Bullock museum dedication,” the caption reads. “State troopers move Bush protester Mary Lehmann from one side of the street to the other after she refused to get back on the curb.”
Lehmann can’t pinpoint a particular driver behind her sense of civic purpose.
“She was born with it,” says her daughter, Phoebe Love, 46. “She’s been like that her whole life.” Wherever she lives, she’s engaged in her community, Love says. And where she lives is based on how involved she can be.
“Did she tell you what happened before she left Boonville?”
On Aug. 2, 1988, Lehmann stood outside of a Boonville fire station — a polling place — and passed out leaflets protesting an issue on the ballot. She says she was careful not to get closer than the legally permissible distance of 25 feet. According to court records, the Boonville fire chief, a fire department employee and a deputy county clerk said they repeatedly warned her to stop breaching 25 feet. A police officer who was summoned marked off the distance for her. But she was alleged to have encroached again, for the fourth time, and was arrested. “Total lie,” she says.
She was convicted by jury and fined $50.
She appealed the charge, and the case went before the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City. On Feb. 20, 1990, Lehmann served as her own attorney and was given five minutes to make a speech. “The judge, there were three of them, and one of them said, ‘This is the most competent pro se speech I’ve ever heard,’” she says.
The conviction was overturned.
And Lehmann moved back to St. Louis.
Long before she began protesting presidents, small fines and big business, Lehmann attended Vassar College in New York, where she studied biology and plant physiology. After graduating in 1946, she moved back to St. Louis, where she taught sculpture at a high school for two years. In 1951, she graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She also went to architecture school at Washington University but dropped out. In 1953, she married an attorney, Frederick Lehmann, and they had two boys and a girl. They divorced in 1968.
In the late 1960s, Lehmann developed a reading system called Legicode, which she patented in 1971. Love, her daughter, said she learned to read from the system when she was 3. In the 1970s, Lehmann operated a nursery school out of the first floor of her home and also ran “Nearby,” a neighborhood newsletter.
Around 1980, she stopped driving a car. She began studying permaculture, an ecological design system emphasizing conservation, sustainability and the restoration of diminished ecosystems. Which is why, in the early 1980s, she moved to a farm outside of Jamestown.
Well, that’s part of the reason.
In 1966, Lehmann developed a rare condition. A hemifacial spasm. A blood vessel was pressing against a facial nerve, causing one side of her face to briefly tighten. Initially, she barely paid attention to it. Gradually, the spasms became more frequent. Sharper. More embarrassing. They made her want to head to the less populated regions of Missouri.
It reached a point, Lehmann says, where kids would grab their mothers and point and say, “Look at that woman, her face is …” She demonstrates, contorting the right side of her face and holding it for a long second.
Doctors were baffled. Eventually, her son, Fritz, found a story about a similar case in a magazine and contacted the article’s author.
To say Lehmann is fuzzy with recalling dates is generous. But one she remembers well: on Dec.13, 1983, she had surgery to insert a plastic screw in her skull to lift the blood vessel from the nerve. Four months later, the spasms were gone.
“I just thought, boy, if I ever get rid of this, I’m never going to be afraid to speak up again.“
One day last fall, Lehmann stood outside of the post office on Walnut Street. She was collecting signatures to help get Proposition B, the “Puppy Mill” bill, on the November ballot, when she met a man wearing a blue pin, about which she inquired. Rick McKernan says Lehmann was “a little bit unusual to read,” but he could tell she was caring and passionate. He told her about his organization and invited her to their next meeting.
So Lehmann joined the Downtown Optimist Club.
“I’m an impostor,” she says.
The club, which raises money for children’s causes and nonprofit groups, meets every Monday for lunch in a banquet room at Boone Tavern.
One April day, there are about 35 members seated at five tables. Everyone is warm and social. They shake hands, introduce themselves to guests and eat fried chicken and salad from the buffet.
The members are mostly older, and they are mostly male. Today, Lehmann is sitting at a table with several younger members, all men. She tries to sit at different tables to meet new people. After the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, guests are asked to introduce themselves. It’s announced that one member got a hole-in-one last weekend. Everyone applauds.
Today’s speaker, a woman from Fun City Youth Academy, gives a passionate speech about the importance of helping youth. Lehmann says she wanted to hear more about its budget.
Toward the end of the meeting, a volunteer sheet is passed around for a bicycle safety event, which Lehmann signs. After the meeting, she approaches club president Sid Sullivan and tells him she wants to buy math textbooks for a group of gifted high school kids represented at a previous meeting.
Before they leave, members turn and face a banner displaying the club's creed. The impostor hasn’t memorized it yet, but she’s been trying.
“Promise yourself,” they say together, “To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. … To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true …”
The right direction
“I’m really not the gloom-and-doomer I was in Austin,” Lehmann says.
But she can’t help but notice that she’s reached an age where people are “dropping off.” In June, she’ll head to her 65th reunion at Vassar. “We’re now such rare birds that the college is putting us up, and we don’t have to pay for a thing,” she says.
She’s tried to stay in contact with some friends over the years but has lost touch with others. “Maybe there is a point to Facebook.”
She doesn’t sleep as well as she used to. Sometimes she’s up until the middle of the night. Sometimes she wakes at dawn. She hasn’t been on her bike lately because she’s concerned about being alert enough to ride.
“I think old people have to retire,” she says, “because, I mean, talk about those air controllers. We’d be snoozing on the job routinely.”
But she keeps going. She keeps researching. She keeps getting into political debates with Fritz at family dinners.
And she looks for ways to become involved in Columbia. She wants to use leftover money from her Austin foundation, Keep the Land, to organize a group that will work to promote self-sufficiency and reduce consumption. She’s met with people in the nonprofit community. She’s started going to public meetings. Nothing’s assembled, but she’s looking for people who might be interested.
“This is something I’d like to see before I die,” she says.
But she’s worried about being an outsider. And she’s worried there’s not enough time to organize what she started in Austin. “If nobody is interested in my foundation idea, my group idea, then I don’t know.” Her voice becomes faint and distant. “I have to move.”
Lehmann doesn’t know what’s coming next, but she’ll keep working. And as long as the Regency is standing, she’ll be in that room at the end of the hall. She’ll toss and turn on two-thirds of a mattress. She’ll read, write and loaf. She’ll sit in the cockpit, stare at a glowing laptop and figure out how to use Twitter. She’ll do laps in the pool and relax in the Jacuzzi. She’ll find ways to be involved in Columbia.
She’ll have everything she needs.