A Publication of Dickinson College
Volume 82 · Number 2 - Fall 2004
Hats off to the ‘Gavel Girl’
Jane Alexander has kept the same office on Dillsburg’s main drag for nearly 50 years.
Jane Lehmer Alexander ’51 is known for far more than her trademark hats that match each stylish outfit. It’s remarkable that, at age 74, she maintains a full-time private law practice in small-town Dillsburg, Pa. And that she’s never lost a case at trial.
But what is even more impressive about Alexander are her pioneering achievements for women during the latter half of the 20th century. In 1955, she became the first woman to be elected to Dillsburg Borough Council and the first practicing female lawyer in York County. In 1972, she was named the first woman deputy secretary of agriculture in the United States.
Her fate was determined even before she entered Dickinson in 1947. “When I was 5 years old, my grandfather said, ‘Jane, you’re going to be a lawyer,’ ” Alexander recalls. “It was decided on that day. He said, ‘We’re going to overlook the fact that you’re female.’”
Until Alexander enrolled in Dickinson’s three-three law program, which allows students to study for three years at the college and three years at the Dickinson School of Law, her grandfather groomed her by having her observe his practice as a district justice. At the college, she met her first husband, the late P. Nelson Alexander ’51, and married him between her junior and senior years. They had four children and shared a law practice in Dillsburg for years. Alexander now mentors another aspiring Dillsburg native, Jessica Bowman ’04, who interned at her firm and will start her second year at the law school this fall. Alexander plans to bring Bowman into her practice when she graduates.
“I enjoyed my years at Dickinson,” Alexander reminisces. She recalls the debate competition at the Pennsylvania State University that she won as a junior. She earned the title “gavel girl of Pennsylvania”—and a gavel made from coal. That same year, she was selected as student representative to the United Nations.
“And there I met my heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt,” Alexander says. In her characteristically lively fashion, she describes a much-later experience in a beauty salon. The manicurists said that they were honored to do her nails because she reminded them of the former first lady.
It’s not an irrational comparison. For more than 50 years, Alexander has been intensely politically active, citing what she calls “a certain consideration for people,” a passion to improve the world. She’s led councils and committees, attended conferences across the globe. She was a pal of the late U.S. senator and vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, among other luminaries, and attended historic events such as the the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. All the while, Alexander practiced small-town law. Raised on a farm, she counted many farmers among her clients.
“I learned quite a bit about agriculture and eventually became director of the Bureau of Foods and Chemistry for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,” she says. “As a lawyer, I had a 100-percent win rate, and people were asking, ‘Whose attorney is whipping us like this?’ So, on the basis of these things, I was invited to be deputy secretary of agriculture of the United States.
“At my first meeting for deputy secretaries, a man came up to me and said, ‘Hey, girlie, this meeting is for secretaries only,’ ” she remembers, laughing. “I looked him right in the eye and said ‘Yes, I know.’ ”
Nowadays she still keeps her hands in her general law practice and progressive issues. She’s also the owner and president of J&J Agri-Products & Services, an agricultural-consulting agency and manufacturer of safe, organic agricultural products.
In April, she joined the advisory board of the Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy, which prides itself on debating “large-scale project proposals that can contribute to human progress through the improvement of world habitat.” The inaugural gathering in Bristol, R.I., centered on “New Land for Peace: Reclaimed Land in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
“We’re focusing on the needs of the Middle East and how to reduce tension,” Alexander explains. “One of the proposals we’re discussing is whether or not to build a city on the sea, off of the Gaza Strip. The question is how we would feed people on the sea.
“Another idea we’re talking about is how to alleviate the pressure of the need for water in the Mediterranean,” she continues. “One of the greatest problems we have in the world is water management. It’s the same thing wherever you go in the world—water is gold.”
Alexander’s proposal is to tap into the water of the Nile River, a goal she says is “very, very doable. It could really solve a big part of the problem.” She and others board members, which include a college president and former undersecretary-general of the UN, have contacted government officials in Ethiopia about the proposal.
“You know, you can build and build all you want,” Alexander says. “But one of the greatest things I’ve learned is, if you can’t talk to people, you will not command the attention of a hungry man. The biggest thing is to listen to people; let them educate you, then you can help them.” •
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