By Ashley Brazzel
Over a hundred years ago, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 47 years. Today it’s 78, but try telling that to Rachel Lehmann, 104, the lighthearted centenarian and longtime Buckhead resident who proves age is but a number.
“I contribute her longevity to her passionate attitude,” said Sonia Oxman, a close friend of Lehmann.
But what did you expect? Something had to propel her well past her peers and into triple-digits. So, throw out all your notions of rocking chairs and tapestry quilts, and enter the world of Ms. Lehmann, the World War II U.S. Army veteran with a social life lively enough to make even Paris Hilton jealous.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Oxman said. “I never know what’s going to happen.”
Clearly, it’s Lehmann’s infectious happiness and girl-like charm that make her so enjoyable. And if this were high school, she’d likely be voted prom queen.
“Smiling is the secret…” Lehmann said of her zestful personality. “And good health, thank God.”
That zestful personality must have been much appreciated as Army Sergeant Rachel Lehman processed soldiers going off to war and coming home through Fort Dix, New Jersey, from 1943-46. Today, she relives memories with other veterans of her era as a member of Jewish War Veterans Post 112 in Atlanta.
Still, it’s not just the cheerful disposition that makes her so appealing, but also the loyalty and kindness of this New York native who lived in Miami Beach, Florida, before coming to Atlanta.
What started out as a relocation from Miami Beach to Atlanta to care for her ailing sister, eventually turned into an opportunity to volunteer with the Atlanta Opera.
“I answered an ad… and was hired immediately, with no salary” Lehmann said. “I had a desk in the hallway. That was my office.”
That was in 1979, the time of the Atlanta Opera company’s inception. Now 28 years later, Lehmann has an “office with a window, desk, flowers and a chair in front of my window.”
For 24 years, she volunteered every day at the opera, doing a little of everything. She started out as sort of an administrative assistant, but her last title was that of audition coordinator.
She no longer goes to the Opera company’s offices every day, but she is still looked upon as one of the company’s most loyal volunteers.
“Rachel’s dedication as a volunteer to the Atlanta Opera is unparalleled in this country,” said Cristina Herrera, Interim Director of Marketing for the Atlanta Opera. “She is an inspiration to us all.”
Like most who have lived a full and interesting life, the stories abound and photos on the walls of her home in the Zaban Tower on Howell Mill Road in Buckhead punctuate many of her experiences.
As for memorable stories, consider the time Lehmann was surprised by the Make a Wish Foundation with a Second Dream (a program designed to provide wishes to senior citizens).
“They asked do you have a wish, do you dream?” Lehmann said. “I said yes. I dream about my sister all the time. It still brings tears to my eyes naturally.”
Her simple yes was enough to make everyone scurry in secret, with a slew of odd questions following closely behind.
“How tall are you? How much do you weigh? What’s your favorite color?” Lehmann said. “I said, what’s all of this? Baby blue is my favorite color.”
Surprisingly, “this” turned out to be a night she would never forget. She was taken by limo to an old farmhouse in Smyrna, and whisked out to change into “a gorgeous baby blue chiffon outfit,” then escorted into a ballroom with “Secondhand Rose” (one of her favorites) playing in the background.
“They rented three dancers from Fred Astaire to dance with me,” Lehmann said. “I didn’t know what world I was in. They arranged everything without my knowing anything about it.”
Her memorable stories don’t end there however. She recounts the time her sister and brother-in-law decided it was time for her to give up driving at age 95.
“I said, why?” Lehmann said. “My license is clear.”
Eventually, after hearing a radio show discussing ‘how old is too old to drive,’ she conceded and gave up her little four-door Honda “with not a scratch on it.”
Now no longer driving, Lehmann was forced to ride the bus to and from work—until she started taking a taxi, an expense picked up by her job.
“As soon as I get in we start singing,” Lehmann said of her cab ventures. “I’m the only rider who gets invited to their (the cabbies’) Christmas party.”
Once, a driver even mentioned his wife was jealous because he talked about Lehmann so much that she thought he was seeing someone else.
Truly, she has nothing to worry about since Lehmann has her hands full with her own boyfriend, Bill Hargrove, 106, the record holder as the oldest active bowler in history. The two met a couple of years back at a party hosted by the Atlanta Opera after he was told about Lehmann by his daughter. Ironically, he came in looking for an old lady and couldn’t find one.
“He’s precious. He’s just adorable,” Lehmann gushes. “He was so worried when I fell and hurt my back. He called me and said ‘Rachel, darling…’ that was the cutest thing, that’s the one message I keep on my machine.”
Lehmann was once married but didn’t want to talk about that. When you reach the age of 104, you maybe have the right to decide what you want to talk about or not talk about.
She has no children, but she has a lot of nieces and nephews.
As this article hits the newsstand, Lehmann will be getting ready for her big birthday celebration, sure to outdo the previous year’s that was held at 103 West on West Paces Ferry Road.
Among the guests, her great-grand niece Didi Conn, best known for her role as Frenchie in the movie Grease, and a surprise visit by a very special someone, who of course is an opera singer and will sing happy birthday to Lehmann.