Jim Lemen

Jim Lemen outside John Burroughs School. Photo: Mike Sherwin

Ellen Futterman

Not all of our Unsung Heroes are Jewish. Jim Lemen, for example, is Protestant, but he was chosen for this honor because of his foresight in championing a Holocaust studies curriculum at John Burroughs School. That and the fact he’s an all-around nice guy whom the students and faculty like and admire.

Lemen will retire in June as the athletic director at Burroughs, but for more than three decades he taught seventh grade history and was also a longtime football, basketball and baseball coach. When he first began teaching history, or social studies as it is called, the seventh graders learned about world geography. That was fine, but circumstances arose that made Lemen think a change was needed.

“At the time, the head of the history department wanted to increase the amount of discussion that occurred in the seventh grade classes,” Lemen recalled. “Second, there was a racial slur against Jews written on a wall at the school. And third, I had read an article about a program in Boston called ‘Facing History and Ourselves,’ which was about teaching the Holocaust.

“Frankly, I didn’t feel like there was a lot of things worth discussing in world geography. We needed something worthwhile to discuss.”

Intrigued with the Boston model, Lemen went there in 1981 to attend a workshop about it. But he left realizing that the program wouldn’t quite work at Burroughs. So when he returned to St. Louis, he contacted the Center for Holocaust Studies (the pre-cursor to the Holocaust Museum here) and met with its director, Warren Green, to tailor a Holocaust studies curriculum for his school.

“We had two main objectives,” Lemen explained. “I wanted to use it as a springboard to touch other areas of prejudice. I also wanted to talk about the uniqueness of the Holocaust as it pertained to Jews and make it understandable and palatable to seventh graders.”

In 1985, Lemen was chosen to travel to Israel to visit and study at Yad Vashem where he attended a program to teach educators how to teach the Holocaust. “To this day, it was the only time I have been abroad,” said Lemen. “I was there for four weeks and I did get to visit the Freedom Fighter museum in Haifa, climb Masada, go to the Dead Sea and visit the Wailing Wall. It was a tremendous experience.”

Eventually, the Holocaust curriculum Lemen began at Burroughs expanded to become multicultural studies. However, when he stopped teaching history, it went back to world geography. (Students now learn about the Holocaust in 10th grade as part of modern world history.)

What is striking about Lemen is that he walks the walk. During the civil rights movement, he and his wife, who were childhood sweethearts, were struck by the needs of hard to place children and adopted a bi-racial baby, their daughter, Jenny, who is now 39. They also took in an African-American young man at the age of 16 who lived with them for eight years. He now calls them mom and dad, and they consider him a son.

Keith Shahan, who was headmaster at Burroughs for 23 years before retiring last year, said Lemen “is one of the most ethical people” he knows.

“I remember a baseball game when the umpire ruled for us and Jim went out to explain to him that he made the wrong call,” Shahan said. “It wasn’t that (the umpire) didn’t see it right, but that he misinterpreted the rules.”

Shahan said that while Lemen does have a temper, “especially when he hits a bad golf shot, the only time I saw him lose it was when one of our kids did something unsportsmanship-like.”

The former headmaster also said that Lemen graduated from Dartmouth University and has a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and is a member of the Missouri Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. These are things that Lemen never mentioned during an interview probably, Shahan speculated, because Lemen isn’t one to boast about himself. As head football coach, he led Burroughs to eight state championship titles.

A true sports enthusiast, Lemen coached Little League baseball for 18 years, and both Little League football and hockey for six years. “I’ve always loved the mix of teaching and coaching because you get to see the whole child, the real person,” Lemen said. “In athletics, values are such an important part. You have to follow the rules, there’s sportsmanship and fair play. And that’s basically how it works in life, too.”

Jim Lemen

Age: 70

Occupation:  Retiring as athletic director at John Burroughs School but will continue to work in the school’s development office. He’s worked at the school for 43 years.

Family:  Married to Carole; five grown children and eight grandchildren

Home:  O’Fallon

Fun Fact:  The professional athletes he most admires include Ted Simmons, Bill Koman, Bob Forsch, (Cardinals second baseman) Mike Tyson, Jackie Smith, Andy Van Slyke, Jim Baaken, Dave Sisler and Gus Frerotte, each of whom had kids attend Burroughs. “They all understood the value of athletics for kids,” says Lemen, “ and were able to keep athletics in its proper perspective.”