Roads Taken and Not Taken: Martin Lehfeldt '61
Martin Lehfeldt '61 reflects on his lifetime career of teaching, philanthropy, activism.
In the spring of 1965, I was preparing to complete the Master of Divinity program at Union Theological Seminary in New York City—an essential step toward following my grandfather and father into the Lutheran ministry. However, this route had one critical impediment: I had decided that I didn’t want to be a Lutheran minister.
My father’s recent death had freed me from the difficult task of informing him about that decision. But I was now facing another dilemma. No one seemed to be looking for employees who had majored in English literature at Haverford College and done graduate work in theological studies. My need for a job also was significantly heightened by the fact that my wife and I were expecting our first child.
The position wasn’t widely advertised, but I learned indirectly that the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton was in search of a program officer. That organization awarded highly competitive graduate fellowships to college seniors who were willing to embark upon careers as professional academics. Haverford men—yes, still only men in those days—regularly won these prestigious awards, and my own class had included several recipients.
The new staff member would direct a “Teaching Internship Program”—a kind of academic adjunct to the many civil rights activities of the time. It was intended to assist the 100-plus historically Black and financially struggling colleges and universities (HBCUs) throughout the South that had been “re-discovered” by the white world as a result of their students’ sit-ins and other protests. The Foundation would place Woodrow Wilson Fellows on their faculties and, as an important inducement, pay half of these gifted young scholars’ salaries.
With a desperation born of stark necessity, and with not a little chutzpah, I applied for the job. I was not a scholar and knew virtually nothing about the world of higher education. My exposure to the South consisted of a family camping trip to Virginia when I was seven years old and one brief visit to Atlanta as an adult. I had never set foot on a historically Black college campus. Given the tenor of the times, I think it’s a safe bet that none of the other candidates was Black. However, one mark in my favor seemed to be that I had spent a year working on the staff of a Black church and living in a public housing project in Harlem. My new boss also seemed to appreciate the entrepreneurial instincts that had led me and former Haverford classmate Peter Brown ’61 (also my roommate at Union Seminary) to start a typing service that served students of academic institutions (Columbia, Barnard, Union, Jewish Theological, etc.) in Morningside Heights.
Whatever the reasons, I got the job. Within a few months I began what became a fouryear regimen of visiting Black colleges from Pennsylvania to Texas to learn of their faculty needs, recruiting Woodrow Wilson Fellows at graduate schools from the Ivy League to California, placing these young scholars on the campuses of historically Black colleges and universities, and then shepherding them through the experience with follow-up visits and periodic seminars and conferences.
All of this activity played out against the backdrop of a still energetic civil rights movement. A few of our recruits had come South before on voter registration drives. However, it was an eye-opening, stereotype-shattering, and sometimes life-altering experience for many of these mostly white, mostly Northern young men and women—and for me—to learn about the region from the perspective of a highly educated middle-class Black community with a century-old tradition of educational service about which we had been unaware.
After four years, desiring to be closer to the action, I petitioned my boss to let me move my office to Atlanta. When he dismissed that suggestion, I impetuously announced my plans to resign and looked for a job at the Atlanta University Center (a consortium formed by Atlanta University, Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Spelman Colleges, and the Interdenominational Theological Center).
I did not have the academic credentials to qualify for faculty status, but Clark College was looking for its first-ever vice president for development. Because of my previous work, and despite my limited experience, the college was willing to hire me. Blessed by the opportunity to “sell” a dynamic president (Dr. Vivian W. Henderson) and his vision of a college that prepared students for nontraditional leadership positions, and coached by a gifted consultant, I became increasingly adept at fundraising.
Ten years later, I knew just enough and had sufficient arrogance to form my own consulting firm. For a while I seemed to be stereotyped as that white guy who raised money for Black institutions. However, over the next 15 or so years, I and a small staff counseled a wide variety of other local, regional, and national clients about fundraising, planning, and organizational development. Then a four-year contract to evaluate a national program to strengthen community foundations soon steered me into the field of philanthropy. In time I was hired as president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, a regional association of some 350 grant makers in 11 states.
Space does not permit a summary of the lessons learned on this journey for which I could never have prepared. However, a major discovery was that the not-for-profit sector is a flexible universe (inhabited by many caring individuals committed to repairing the world) in which a loosely tethered generalist can shape a productive career.
Lehfeldt, now retired, is the author of The Sacred Call (a biography of Donald L. Hollowell, a renowned civil rights lawyer in Georgia), and Notes From a Non-Profitable Life (essays about his variegated career), and co-author of The Liberating Promise of Philanthropy (a history of grantmaking foundations in the South). His most recent book is You’re Not From Around Here, Are You? (a collection of both serious and whimsical reflections about the past 60 years in his adopted homeland of the South), published by Belle Isle Press and available from Amazon. He also is “President for Life” of the Haverford Class of 1961.