The Empty Chair

IN MEMORY OF Rev. Tony Lehmann, S.J. (1928-2002)

The tradition of the empty chair was carried out in honor of Fr. Tony Lehmann, S.J., the alumni chaplain at Gonzaga University for the past 20 years who passed away during the 2001-02 basketball season. "Father Tony" as he was known was always closely associated with the men's basketball team at Gonzaga University sitting at the end of the Bulldogs bench at home and away contests. During Gonzaga's 2001 December trip to the East Coast, Father Tony became ill and was diagnosed with leukemia. For the remainder of the season the last chair on the Bulldogs bench was left empty, usually filled with flowers from friends and admirers.

On March 8, Father Tony lost his battle with leukemia. In his honor the Bulldogs added a patch to their uniforms for the 2002 NCAA Tournament that simply stated: "Fr. Tony."

Below is the story of Rev. Tony Lehmann.


"To be continued."

That's the way Rev. Anthony "Tony" Joseph Lehmann, S.J., known to a legion of friends and admirers as simply "Father Tony" always chose to end his conversations. And that's the message he wanted to impart upon the multitude of friends he has made over his full and meaningful life.

Born Sept. 10, 1928 in Pinckneyville, Ill., he passed away and returned to his beloved Lord this morning, Friday, March, 8, in the Jesuit House Infirmary at Gonzaga University from complications from leukemia.

Rev. Lehmann was a cloistered monk for 16 years, hidden away in a walled, mountain hermitage. He lived in a small cottage, saw others only at church, and didn't speak except during once-a-week outings into the mountains.

But for the past 33 years wild horses couldn't keep Father Tony away from people. He was officially alumni chaplain, but more accurately Gonzaga's ambassador of goodwill to its alumni and friends and anyone with whom he would come into contact.

Some knew Father Tony as the Gonzaga men's basketball priest, as he occupied a special spot at the end of the Bulldog bench for the past 20 years. The team will leave that seat vacant for the remainder of the season.

To others, he was Gonzaga University's version of Lil' Abner's "Marryin' Sam."

A spoof business card, created for Father Tony by Marty Riley (a 1981 GU alumnus), is emblazoned with the motto, "Have Chalice, Will Travel!"

Father Tony used them on occasion, "but quite judiciously," he said. "They're not for every occasion."

He was a man for all occasions . . . weddings, funerals, wakes, baptisms; he did them all for Gonzaga alumni, their family and friends -- literally anyone who asked. He performed more than 1,000 weddings alone. Not bad for a priest without a parish.

At 73, the ever-youthful seeming Father Tony showed no signs of slowing down until his body, fatigued by a ferocious travel schedule, finally said "Wait a minute" while he was on the East Coast to perform a wedding and attend Gonzaga basketball games against Monmouth and St. Joseph's earlier this season.

Lehmann was admitted to a New York hospital on Dec. 29, 2001, utterly drained of energy. He had leukemia, and his immune system was in dire need of replenishment. Rest was the best treatment.

Lehmann returned to Spokane Jan. 6 aboard the private jet of Gonzaga University Trustee Tim Barnard, Bozeman, Mont. Barnard had established a strong relationship with Lehmann when he spent a year with Father Tony at the Gonzaga-in-Florence (Italy) program in 1971. Barnard later helped establish the "Padre Lehmann Scholarship Fund" at Gonzaga to assist students fund a year of study abroad.

On his 70th birthday Lehmann was heard to have said, "I feel much younger than I ever thought I'd feel at this age. People talk of senior citizens and free bus passes, and I just assumed it would come much later in life."

Father Tony's life was a testament to his zest for living.

"We have a very good God, out of which I accept great personal dignity, a sense of purpose and a promise of great destiny," Lehmann said. "What I do is directed by gratitude rather than duty. I speak with engaged couples about keeping promises. It is a constant reminder of the promises I have made. I can't lip those words and not keep them myself.

"What is really great reinforcement for me is to see someone who was once a student and now a parent, tell their child something that I had told the parent long ago. It reinforces my beliefs."

Lehmann spent his childhood in Murphysboro, Ill., with three brothers and three sisters. His father was a dairy manager. His mother died when Tony was 5. His father later married Tony's Aunt Birdie, who helped raise the family.

After graduating from Murphysboro Township High School, Lehmann joined the Army, and his travels took him to Japan and Korea. He visited the site in Hiroshima where the United States had dropped the atomic bomb in 1945, and witnessed the devastation it had caused. He also visited a lepers' colony, and was struck by the happy faces he found on those afflicted.

It was then that Tony Lehmann knew he wanted to be a man of peace.

When he returned to civilian life he continued his education at Little Rock College in Little Rock., Ark., where he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1952. It was during his senior year there that he became aware of the ways of the Carthusians, a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church. He visited the first American foundation of the Carthusians in the solitude of the mountains of Vermont.

"I went, I saw, and I was conquered by the beauty of the area," Lehmann said. From 1953 to 1959, he lived in a monastery near Fribourg, Switzerland and in 1959 received a degree in theology from the Monastere De La Valsainte, Switzerland. On Aug. 24, 1959 he was ordained a priest. In 1961 he served in various positions at monasteries in Calabria, Italy, and Pisa, Italy, until 1969.

The monks were fed a cooked meal once a day, in mid- morning. It was up to each monk to save part of his meal for sustenance later in the day. Food was delivered through a hole in the cottage, and the hooded monks never had eye contact with each other except during their once-a-week outings into the mountains.

Those came on Monday afternoons. "We were just like kids at recess," Lehmann said. "But except for those hikes, we did not speak to each other."

They did attend Mass together in the early morning, vespers in the evening, and the chanting of the Psalms of the Night Office in the middle of the night.

The days included a lot of meditation and study. Each monk was his own woodcutter and housekeeper.

It was in 1969, on a trip to Florence to renew his passport, and later to help out an Italian priest friend, that Lehmann stopped by Gonzaga's school in Italy to visit with (the late) Rev. Clement Regimbal, S.J., who then headed the Gonzaga-in-Florence program.

"He asked me if I could fill in for the summer months to say Mass for the Anglo-American community there," Lehmann said. His Carthusian superiors agreed to allow Lehmann a leave-of-absence.

Father Tony liked his experience so much that he stayed until 1972, serving as chaplain, treasurer and in a variety of other assignments. He took a liking to the Jesuit way, and returned to the United States and entered the Novitiate at Sheridan, Ore., in 1972 to become a Jesuit. He received renewal in scripture/theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., and received permission to pronounce final vows in the Society of Jesus in August 1974. Father Tony served as coordinator of Campus Ministry at Gonzaga University in Spokane from September 1974 until May 1976, then returned to Florence as dean of students from 1976 to 1982, when he returned to Spokane and began his work as Gonzaga's alumni chaplain and assistant alumni director.

Since that time he had been a globetrotter. He undoubtedly accumulated more air miles than any other GU employee. Spanning the globe with Gonzaga's alumni, he traveled to 22 countries.

"I'm lucky that a lot of the things I have done in my job are things I'd do if I had the free time to do them," Lehmann said recently.

Lehmann might have more lasting friendships than anyone around. He's a friendmaker. He almost always remembered names, birthdays and special occasions. As he aged, not wanting to lose that personal touch with people he had befriended, he used a Palmpilot to track his acquaintances, long before it was fashionable to do so.

And as he prepared for his death and entrance into God's kingdom, he was at peace, rock-solid in his belief of a greater destiny and warmed by the relationships that have nurtured his life.

"To whom shall we go, Lord," he would recite from John 6:68. And he'd answer genuinely, "We shall go to You, Lord, for it is You who has promised lasting relationships."

"Relationships are not ending," Father Tony said. "Just changing."

As Father Tony always said, "To be continued."

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