Note: This story was last updated at 11:10 a.m. July 19.
Joe Lenhard, a former U.S. Department of Energy research director and founder of the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee, died Friday of COVID-19, a family member said. He was 91.
Lenhard died Friday evening at Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge, his daughter Andrea Lenhard said in a Facebook post.
My father, Joseph Lenhard, died Friday evening at MMC of Covid. He went quickly. Rest in peace, Daddy. You were always my hero.Posted by Andie Lenhard on Friday, July 17, 2020
Lenhard was a research director for the U.S. Department of Energy in Oak Ridge. He had oversight of DOE research activities and served as the federal contracting officer for major federal facilities in the city, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, according to his LinkedIn page. He worked for DOE for about 32 years, from 1957 to 1989.
Lenhard served as president of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce in 1992, and he was chair of the East Tennessee Economic Council in 1993 and 1994.
He helped found CROET in 1994, and he was the founding chairman. CROET helps find ways to re-use former federal property, not just real estate but also equipment and other federal assets. A tribute to Lenhard’s service is noted on a plaque in the Horizon Center Industrial Park in west Oak Ridge.
His daughter Andrea said her father loved the natural world, and she became a biologist and veterinarian because of him. Her father used to take them on long rambles in the woods, Andrea said, and he would pick up animals like snakes and frogs and tell the children what he knew about them.
“He loved nature, and that was very infectious,” she said.
Andrea said Oak Ridge was very important to her father.
“He always wanted to promote Oak Ridge and take care of Oak Ridge,” she said. “He was very devoted to the city.”
Lenhard could often be found walking in local grocery stores. He was very conscious of his health, Andrea said, and he would walk every day at stores that included Walmart, Kroger, and Food City. He would sometimes stop to talk to people, including an Oak Ridge Today reporter.
Andrea said her father was a lot of fun, full of life, and he loved everybody.
She recalled the trips her family used to take to Norris Lake on weekends when she was a child—playing in the water, climbing trees, telling jokes—and she said her father spent as much time as he could with his grandchildren as well.
A statement from the family of Lenhard’s daughter Michele said Joe Lenhard was very supportive of higher education.
“He gave substantial sums of money to the University of Tennessee and Roane State Community College,” the statement said. “Roane State dedicated a room to Joseph Lenhard for his outstanding contributions. Joe came from an economically disproportionate background and saw the benefit of higher education. He wanted to provide educational opportunity for the young people of East Tennessee.”
Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said Lenhard was his friend for more than 25 years.
“The City of Oak Ridge and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Operations were equally blessed to have Joe as their champion from the time he arrived here in 1957,” Gooch said. “Whether it was in his role as DOE Director of Research for Oak Ridge facilities, civic leader, or advocate for re-industrialization, his integrity, intellect, and passion for his work helped make Oak Ridge great. We are better people, our community has prospered, our national security has been strengthened, and ORNL’s world leadership in research has been advanced due to Joe’s dedicated work. On behalf of Judy, myself, and the City of Oak Ridge, I extend our condolences to the Lenhard family with sincere thanks for sharing Joe with us.”
Former Oak Ridge Mayor David Bradshaw said there was a small group that founded CROET, but Lenhard led the charge.
Bradshaw, who served on the CROET board with Lenhard, said he would pick Joe up at his house for CROET meetings at East Tennessee Technology Park after Lenhard stopped driving. Lenhard had opinions that were just as strong then as the day the organization was founded, Bradshaw said.
“I just admire Joe for his commitment to the community from the beginning to the end,” Bradshaw said. “I didn’t always agree with Joe, but I always respected him. Our community will definitely miss him. He loved his community, that’s for sure. He was definitely a servant-leader.”
Heritage Center, also known as ETTP or the former K-25 site, is one of the sites where CROET is re-industrializing. The center posted this message on Saturday: “We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of CROET’s founding chairman, long-time board member, and avid supporter Joe Lenhard. He was a great man and will be greatly missed!”
Former Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan served as president of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce after Lenhard.
Lenhard was like a mentor because he had experience and had worked for DOE, Beehan said. At the time, Beehan had only been in Oak Ridge two years. Lenhard made sure Beehan knew the town’s history and how to best represent the business community and DOE.
“He was very helpful,” Beehan said.
He said Lenhard was supportive when he ran for office. One of the first checks Beehan’s campaign received was an unsolicited donation from Lenhard.
The former mayor said Lenhard would show up every Friday morning, for as long as he could, at meetings of the East Tennessee Economic Council.
Oak Ridge historian, author, and photographer Ray Smith said Lenhard was his neighbor. Smith said he would take Lenhard to ETEC meetings and also to Rotary Club meetings.
Lenhard had a very prominent position with DOE for years, Smith said.
“I enjoyed being his neighbor,” Smith said. “He was an interesting person with a lot of history of Oak Ridge.”
Lenhard helped Smith with his “Historically Speaking” column and gave him a lot of stories, Smith said.
“Joe has forgotten more about Oak Ridge than the rest of us will ever know,” said Tennessee Senator Ken Yager, a Kingston Republican. “I will miss his welcome when I would show up for ETEC. RIP, my friend.”
Jim Campbell, ETEC president, said Lenhard was board chair when he was hired in the mid-1990s. Lenhard was always passionate about the work, the people, and the opportunities that were available because of what is happening in Oak Ridge and what might be possible in the future, Campbell said.
Lenhard was a “great cheerleader for Oak Ridge, and he will be missed by all who knew him well,” Campbell said.
He said Lenhard was a significant part of the team that remade the Roane-Anderson Economic Council as the East Tennessee Economic Council in the early 1990s. Issues at the time, after the end of the Cold War, included how to preserve missions at federal sites in Oak Ridge and complete cleanup work. There was also the challenge of what to do with K-25 site, which was shut down in the mid-1980s. Cleanup of that site will be mostly complete this year.
The building blocks were created in the early 1990s with help from people like Lenhard, Campbell said.
“They put in place a pathway to success, and it’s worked,” Campbell said.
Among the success stories he cited were the building of the Spallation Neutron Source at ORNL, the rebuilding of Y-12, the K-25 cleanup, and the creation of industrial spaces.
Daughter encourages mask use
Andrea said her father, who needed medical care, had been living at The Groves, an assisted living facility on Emory Valley Road, since March. His wife Crissy was having major surgery and was unable to help him anymore, Andrea said.
Her father, who was diabetic and normally very active, had stopped eating and drinking, and he was dehydrated and couldn’t stand up. He was brought to the emergency room at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday. After being admitted, he got a fever and started coughing. He tested positive for COVID-19. He died less than 24 hours later.
“It was so fast,” Andrea said.
Andrea said she had ensured that her father wore a mask and used hand sanitizer, including when he went to doctor’s appointments.
She encouraged others to wear a mask. She pointed out that her father had no symptoms less than 24 hours before he died.
“The masks are so important, and hardly anybody in this area is willing to wear them,” Andrea said.
She said she finds it “terrifying” that schools are supposed to start in less than two weeks.
Lenhard served in Navy, DOE; advocated industrial development
Lenhard wrote his own obituary and has also posted brief biographical information on his LinkedIn page.
Joseph Andrew Lenhard, of Newell Lane in Oak Ridge, was born June 18, 1929, in a rural area outside Detroit. He graduated from East Detroit High School, where he participated in football and track, in 1947. After graduation, he worked in an automobile factory, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
He received a U.S. Navy scholarship to Vanderbilt University in 1949. He studied physics and graduated in 1953. After serving as a naval officer for three years, he returned to Vanderbilt on a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission fellowship in 1956. He earned a master’s degree in nuclear physics in 1957. He came to Oak Ridge for summer training and stayed in the city for the rest of his life.
Lenhard served as a senior executive with DOE, and for the last 15 years of his employment, he was responsible for all research and development activities within Oak Ridge Operations. His obituary said Lenhard received numerous federal awards during his career and was a U.S. delegate to the 1964 Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was responsible for the safety of all U.S. exhibits. He also established and directed the first integrated Safety and Environmental Division in AEC-Oak Ridge.
Andrea said her father was “very close-mouthed” about that work, but in another role as a DOE spokesman, he enjoyed talking to the press.
After retiring in 1989 with 35 years of federal service, Lenhard actively promoted Oak Ridge for federal and private-sector industrial development.
He made generous contributions to local universities, especially the Oak Ridge branch of Roane State Community College and to the University of Tennessee.
In August, Lenhard was recognized for more than 30 years as a member of the Oak Ridge Breakfast Rotary Club.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Joseph and Mary E. Lenhard; a sister, Janette Lenhard; his brothers, Andrew Lenhard and Kenneth Lenhard; and his son, Mark Lenhard.
He is survived by his wife, Crissy Lenhard; two daughters, Andrea Lenhard and Michele Lenhard; two step-children, James Buchan and Leca Buchan; five grandchildren, Sarah Buchan, Meagan and Michael McClanahan, and Stephen and Samantha Scales; and five great-grandchildren, Dominic and Keegan Francis, Skylar Lawrence, and Sawyer and Waylan Scales.
Cremation and Funeral Services of Tennessee are in charge of cremation. Lenhard’s ashes will be scattered in a private family service.