WINDSOR TERRACE — Upon meeting John Lenehan and hearing his life story, one could reasonably say this well-spoken gentleman with gray hair and matching beard has lived “a life in full.”
Lenehan, 87, a native of Astoria, Queens, achieved a stellar business career in sales and management that took him throughout the world.
Lenehan and his wife, Lillian Marie, have been married 64 years, and raised six children — two daughters and four sons — who have blessed them with 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Still, Lenehan has one goal not yet met — a business degree from Bronx-based Fordham University. He enrolled at the Jesuit institution on the G.I. Bill in 1956, the year before he wed, but his growing family and career opportunities took priority.
Now retired, Lenehan has re-enrolled at Fordham to finish up the last few credits he needs to graduate on May 21, 2022. He will be 88, and the oldest graduate ever at the university, according to officials there.
“I think it was the middle of April,” he recalled. “I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘Why can’t I do it?’
“But I didn’t know who to write to, so I googled Fordham and I saw Father (Joseph) McShane was the [university’s] president. Apologetically I wrote to him and explained what I was trying to do. And he passed it onto the proper parties.”
Lenehan kept his plans to himself because he didn’t want his family to be disappointed for him if Fordham rejected his application.
But in early May, he said, “they accepted me as a returning student, much to my happy surprise.”
Go Where Uncle Sam Says
Lenehan’s parents, John James and Nora Lena, settled in Queens after immigrating from Ireland. They had three daughters and two sons, who were raised in a devout Catholic household.
The family attended St. Joseph’s Church in Astoria. His late sister, Nora, became a nun — Sister Miriam Cecile.
Lenehan recalled with a chuckle how his father relied on The Tablet for its listings of the film ratings by the Legion of Decency.
“Anytime we wanted to go to the movie, he would check that listing,” Lenehan said. “If the movie wasn’t rated ‘A,’ we weren’t allowed to go.”
Lenehan attended grade school at St. Joseph’s, where he was an altar server and played bugle in the parish’s fife, drum, and bugle corps.
He continued to Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn, graduating in 1952. The Korean War had been raging since 1950, and a year after graduation, Lenehan was drafted into the U.S. Army.
The soldier served as a stateside military policeman at posts in New Jersey and New York. Lenehan said he volunteered for duty away from the Eastern Seaboard, “but they said, ‘No dice.’ ”
“You go where Uncle Sam says,” he added. “It was only two or three months into my service when the Korean Armistice was signed. So I was discharged in 1955.
“And with the G.I. Bill, I decided I would like to go to college.”
‘I Never Went Back’
Fordham first accepted Lenehan in 1956. Around the same time he took a job at the U.S. offices for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, selling air cargo flights.
He also started dating Lillian Marie, a fellow employee, and they got married in 1957. But the job took Lenehan around the country; they lived in Connecticut, Boston, even Houston, and their family grew.
“So I interrupted my studies,” he said. “Then in 1961, I transferred again to Connecticut and discontinued my time at Fordham. I never went back.”
But Lenehan’s career flourished. He left KLM for a few years to operate his own travel agency, but was invited back to the airline to work in a middle-management position. He left the company again in the 1960s to become a sales manager for Xerox.
“I retired from Xerox in 1987,” he said. “Then I went to work for a couple of smaller companies in the same field.”
Included was an extended management stint in Ireland, where he has dual citizenship because his Irish parents immigrated to the U.S. Likewise, Lillian Marie’s parents were Irish immigrants.
‘Why Shouldn’t I Join Them?’
Lenehan permanently retired in 2002, and now he and Lillian Marie live in Florida.
Lenehan could have explored transferring his credits to a college or university closer to home, but his devotion to Fordham never wavered, and he still cheers for its athletic teams.
But, he added, “I liked the Jesuit education. I like the people there. I’ve always wanted to go back and complete it, but that just wasn’t possible or easy for me to do.”
Now, unlike the long subway rides he took from Queens to Brooklyn in high school, Lenehan has the shortest of commutes; modern technology enables him to complete his Fordham courses at home in Florida via “distance learning.”
That’s not to say it’s easy.
“It has been quite difficult for me, for a number of reasons,” he said. “One, I don’t have that interpersonal contact with the professor. Everything is online, so it’s difficult to ask a question. You’ve got to sit down and email it — not the same as having a conversation.
“Also, I’m not exactly an I.T. specialist, but if I have problems I generally call one of my daughters and they fix it straight away for me.”
Lenehan affirmed he is permanently retired, so why bother with completing the degree? One reason is to show that, if he can do this, it is never too late for anyone to pursue a long-desired goal.
Still his main reason is a single word: “grandchildren.”
His six children reached adulthood and raised their own families; two live in California; the other four settled in Connecticut. But 10 of the 13 grandchildren are college graduates with successful careers in business or as doctors, lawyers, and Ph.D.s
“Two of them will be graduating next year with me,” he said. “And the final grandchild is graduating in 2023.
“I figured, you know, why shouldn’t I join them?”