In the summer of 2003, an Akron Beacon Journal photographer out looking for random slice-of-life moments in the community spotted John Lehman, a 19-year-old walking down a Highland Square sidewalk playing guitar and singing.
It was a bright, sunny afternoon, and the caption suggested strolling and strumming was one of his favorite pastimes.
One decade later, Lehman’s friends, family and strangers strolled the same sidewalks and grieved his violent death. They made their trek in the dark, beneath pouring rain, trying to light the night with candles held beneath umbrellas and behind cupped hands.
Nearly 60 people joined the vigil, walking from the Packard Institute on West Market Street to the McDonald’s, where Lehman worked and was shot and killed by an unknown assailant Saturday night.
The flag at the restaurant was flying at half-staff. The marquee that once advertised the restaurant’s new McWrap made a poignant announcement: The store would be closed Saturday — the day of Lehman’s funeral — in remembrance.
The procession was organized by the young clients of Packard, a center that works with troubled youths who were moved by the loss of someone they often saw in the neighborhood.
Director Raynard Packard said he never spoke to Lehman, though the young man once chased an inflatable toy of Packard’s daughter that had blown out of her hands and onto Market Street.
“I never wanted to disturb him. He always walked with great, purposeful strides, and I always imagined him rocking out” to the heavy metal music that he was known to love, Packard said.
But even among those who didn’t know him personally, Lehman was a fixture in a neighborhood known for its Bohemian style and eclectic inhabitants, a place where a man walking the sidewalk and playing guitar looks perfectly natural.
“If anything speaks to the soul of Highland Square, it would be John Lehman. John is us,” Packard said.
Among those walking the vigil were family that drove from Columbus: Uncle Joseph and Aunt Rae Lehman, and cousins Daniel and Nathan.
Rae Lehman said the event was as much for her family as for her nephew. She said the community’s reaction to John’s death has been comforting “and we came because we need the support of the community, too.”
She carried a framed photo of John when he was about 11, sitting among pumpkins with a “ginormous smile.”
Another of John’s uncles, Jim Lehman, said his nephew faced many challenges in his life. He had developmental disabilities and was often picked on. He was mugged more than once, because people knew he was “too scrawny” to fight back, Lehman said.
“But for what he was given, it’s amazing what he made of it,” he said proudly.
As for Wednesday night’s gathering, “John would think this is really something,” he said.
Elder Denny Wilson, of Framework International Community Housing, led the group in a prayer before the candlelight walk.
Representatives from the Akron branch of the NAACP joined the march, including Darian Johnson, president of the chapter’s Youth Affairs group.
“We definitely want to get some justice for this,” he said.
John, 28, had worked at the McDonald’s on Market Street for 10 years, taking the job shortly after graduating from Firestone High School. He was taking out the trash shortly before 11 p.m. Saturday when he was fatally shot. Police say the assailant is a black male in his 20s. He drove a dark-colored SUV, possibly a Ford Expedition or Cadillac Escalade.
A reward of up to $10,000 is being offered for help in solving the crime.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Akron Police Detective Bureau at 330-375-2490, the U.S. Marshal’s Service at 866-492-6833, or Summit County Crimestoppers at 330-434-2677. Callers can remain anonymous.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. John/St. Paul Lutheran Church, 282 W. Bowery St. Family will receive friends one hour prior to the service at the church.