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Philip Lehner, 88, entrepreneur and philanthropist

Mr. Lehner served as an intelligence officer before he ran Leigh Fibers.

Mr. Lehner served as an intelligence officer before he ran Leigh Fibers.

An adventurous entrepreneur with a gift for languages, Philip Lehner began achieving early, entering the US Navy and serving as an intelligence officer during World War II when he was barely in his 20s.

Mr. Lehner went on to create and lead businesses that thrived in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America, despite political strife.

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He also helped build his father’s business, now called Leigh Fibers, into one of the largest companies of its kind and did so by giving “people freedom to do the best possible job,” said his son Carl of Holderness, N.H., who in 1990 succeeded Mr. Lehner as president of the company.

“He set high expectations, and he led by example in terms of working hard and focusing on what was important,” Carl said.

Mr. Lehner — a philanthropist who contributed to environmental and educational programs and established funds at schools such as Harvard University, Smith College, and Buckingham Browne & Nichols — died of congestive heart failure Jan. 5 in his Hingham home. He was 88.

In the 1970s, while two of his sons and his brother, Peter of Hingham, were helping to run Leigh Fibers, Mr. Lehner started Grasas y Acceites with a couple of Central American friends he had met in Boston.

Along with Grasas y Acceites, which became a cottonseed oil mill in Nicaragua, Mr. Lehner pioneered other businesses in the region, among them several that are considered models of “ecologically sound management,” said his son Peter of New York City.

Alfonso Robelo, a Nicaraguan businessman and founder of the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement, said the companies he and Mr. Lehner helped launch succeeded because of Mr. Lehner’s leadership and management style.

“We were always following Philip’s ideas,” Robelo said. “I learned so much from him, not only about business per se, but about how to treat workers, how to respect nature, and how to be loyal to the country where you were establishing a business.”

In Hingham, international guests often were present at the Lehner home.

“One of the wonderful things about our childhood was getting to know so many of our father’s friends from around the world,” Peter said. “His view of the world, from knowing all these people, was a very generous and hopeful perspective toward humanity.”

Born in Boston, Mr. Lehner grew up in Cambridge and Hingham. His father had emigrated from Germany, his mother from France.

He graduated from what was then Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge. In 1941, he began attending Harvard College, where he rowed crew and developed a lifelong love of the sport, which he passed down to his children and grandchildren.

At the end of his freshman year, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Boulder, Colo., for a one-year program studying Japanese. His family said he picked up languages easily and also spoke German, French, and Spanish.

“He was phenomenally intelligent and phenomenally good at languages,” Peter said.

While stationed in Hawaii during the war, Mr. Lehner translated Japanese messages that had been intercepted. He also analyzed ship and troop movements and was promoted to lieutenant 11 days after his 20th birthday.

“My father didn’t talk much about the war,” Peter said. “He didn’t like war, but he chose to enlist, I think, because he knew he could contribute more in intelligence than as a line soldier or sailor.”

In 1945, Mr. Lehner interrogated Japanese prisoners captured during the Battle of Okinawa.

He worked as a translator when Japanese naval forces surrendered and was part of an intelligence team that traveled through Japan to determine the country’s military capacity.

Returning to Harvard after the war, he graduated in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and joined what was then called the Leigh Textile Co.

Mr. Lehner worked with his brother and his father to build the business, which became Leigh Fibers, into an international presence in the textile and fiber reprocessing field. Until recently, Mr. Lehner was chairman of the company’s board of directors.

His job required plenty of international travel, which he relished. In 1948, he was returning from a business trip aboard the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner when he met Monique Brancart of Belgium, who was traveling with her family from Cairo to the United States so she could attend Smith College.

They married in 1951 at Mr. Lehner’s parents’ home in Hingham, where the couple later settled.

“They were both very worldly and loved to travel,” their son Peter said. “And my mother was an extraordinary host, so we got to grow up with people from all over the world around our dinner table.”

Mr. Lehner, who worked hard and traveled often, also “was a very loving father,” son Carl said. “He certainly enjoyed taking walks and going fishing with us. And he enjoyed the successes of his children at every stage of our lives.”

After recovering from an illness in the 1960s, Mr. Lehner began jogging every day, even while traveling.

“If he had a 6:30 a.m. flight to catch, he would get up and jog at 3:30,” Peter said.

Mr. Lehner loved sailing in Hingham and Scituate harbors and in Maine and skiing with his family.

In a eulogy, Peter recalled that his father “would lay out five snowsuits in a row and have us lie on them. He went down the line, zipping us up, and then laced 10 ski boots.”

A service has been held for Mr. Lehner, who in addition to his wife, two sons, and brother leaves two daughters, Christine of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., and Brigitte Kingsbury of Cape Elizabeth, Maine; another son, Michael of Boston; 15 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

“If you want to find someone who fits the description of a gentleman, that was Philip,” Robelo said. “He was very clever and very positive, always saying nice things about people. He had an outstanding analytical mind, which is unusual in a person who was also so kind and gentle, and such a very good friend.”

Kathleen McKenna
can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.
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