LAKELAND — Thousands of people inevitably will remember Harold Lehman for his warm personality and the good food he served at his Lakeland restaurant, Jimbo’s Pit Bar-B-Q, which he owned since 1964.
Lehman died Tuesday night of complications from end-stage kidney disease in his Lakeland home of 51 years, said daughter Traci Hughes, who now owns Jimbo’s. He was 86 years old.
His granddaughter, Olivia Mines, hopes people remember him just as much, if not more, for the full life he led.
“He wasn’t just a businessman. That was his day job,” said Mines, 22, of Lakeland, about her late grandfather, whom friends and family nicknamed “Happy.”
He was interested in nature and the outdoors and he enjoyed visiting and gardening at “Happy’s Place,” a 40-acre habitat near Polk City, said Mines, who is Hughes’ daughter.
Lehman enjoyed taking his children, Mines and other grandchildren, and relatives to Happy’s Place to teach them about nature, she said. He also loved to take the family on hikes, jeep rides, fishing and other occasions where he could talk about nature.
“Anything I know about the outdoors, that man told me,” Mines said.
“That was his place, the place he loved to go,” said Evelyn Hunter of Lakeland, a Jimbo’s server for 44 years this month. “He loved to be outside.”
Lehman enjoyed being around his families, both biological and business, said the three women, who remembered him for his preternaturally sunny personality.
“Harold really liked people. He treated his employees as his family,” Hunter said. “He didn’t show favoritism (with employees). He treated everybody well.”
Pat Pace, 68, of Lakeland, a worker in the kitchen for more than 20 years, agreed.
“Talk about someone nice, he was one of the nicest persons you could ever meet,” Pace said. “There was no color with him. He didn’t care who you were, he treated you the same.”
Even facing death, her father’s indomitable spirit was not cowed, Hughes said.
Lehman had been in declining health for the past several years, she said, and he finally called last week for hospice care during his final days. Then he gathered more than 30 family members on Easter Sunday to say goodbye.
“He said it was the happiest day of his life,” Hughes said. “He got to be with his whole family.”
Hunter recalled Lehman also gathered his biological and business families together at Happy’s Place for his 80th birthday. Pace also recalled a similar gathering there for a party last year.
And although health has kept Lehman away from Jimbo’s for the past several years, she said, “Customers come in all the time asking about him. They still want to see him.”
Lehman was born and raised in Newville, Pennsylvania, and moved with his family to Lakeland at age 12. He quickly planted roots in Southern culture, especially the region’s famous hospitality, and enjoyed collecting Confederate memorabilia, Mines said.
“He adopted the Southern mindset. He was not a Yankee.”
When he opened Jimbo’s in 1964, it became a family business in many ways, Hughes said.
As young children, Hughes and her siblings would come to Jimbo’s with him when school was out, she said. At age 15, Hughes began as a paid employee busing tables, working the cash register and whatever else was needed.
That prepared her to purchase Jimbo’s in 2001, the year after Lehman’s liver transplant.
But he would still come in every day to greet customers and help wherever he could until his health prevented it, family and friends reported.
“That was his baby; he just didn’t want to worry about all the ins and outs,” Hughes said of those years after he sold. “Anything we needed him to do, he could do.”
Although business may not have been his entire life’s work, he still trained the next generations in how to run Jimbo’s, said Hughes and Mines, who also works there as a cashier and part-time manager.
“We loved to go to work with Dad,” Hughes said. “I just remember he was always happy. He greeted people with a smile. He was great to work with.”
In addition to Hughes and Mines, Lehman is survived by his wife of 51 years, Carolyn Lehman; daughter, Tiffany Hutto; son, Harold Hans Lehman Jr.; six other grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Heath Funeral Chapel Tribute Center, 328 S. Ingraham Ave., Lakeland. There will be a private burial.
Kevin Bouffard can be reached at email@example.com or at 863-401-6980.