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A photo by sheer chance, a sister's way back to fallen Officer Craig Lehner

A photo by sheer chance, a sister's way back to fallen Officer Craig Lehner

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Haleigh Wilson started at the end. She walked into the upstairs community room on a busy evening at the Buffalo History Museum and immediately noticed the last image in a new photo exhibit, the one of a Buffalo police officer leaning against his car.

The 10-year-old walked toward it, raised her finger, turned toward her mother.

Look.

The child knew that photo. To the best of her family’s knowledge, it is one of the final images ever captured of Haleigh's uncle, Lt. Craig Lehner, who died in the Niagara River about 21 months ago during a police diving exercise.

Shannon Davis, the photographer behind the show, told the girl why she put the photo in such a climactic place.

"This was the most special one," she said.

Davis meant it with deep respect toward the many families she photographed. She was speaking of a lightning bolt of fate, the way Lehner came to be such a major part of  “I Got Somethin’ To Show You,” a photo exhibit about the Old First Ward whose title recalls a promise by a longtime neighborhood resident.

The show opened last week. Davis invited Lehner’s family, whom she had never met, to stop by. While Kathleen Lehner, Craig's mother, was not feeling well, Donna Lehner, his sister, arrived with her three children, Haleigh, Gabby and 2-year-old Suzanne.

They got to know each other, standing by the image. Davis explained how she came upon Lehner at dusk in 2017, on a summer evening. He was going through drills with his dog Shield at Buffalo's K9 training grounds on Louisiana Street. At the same time, fellow Officer Sean Zoll was giving Davis a tour of the neighborhood.

By sheer chance, Zoll and Davis found Lehner there. To Davis, as a photographer, Lehner was a guy with elaborate tattoos, spiked orange hair that "almost reminded me of flames" and a dog whose intensity clearly matched his own.

She asked if she could photograph him. He agreed to a spend a few minutes with her, then went back to work.

Davis caught one image showing Lehner with a broad smile, alongside his dog. In a second photo, he leans against his patrol car with a slight smile tinged by whimsy, even sadness. After Lehner's death, a stunned Davis quickly offered those images to his family through intermediaries, and the second photo was prominent in his obituary and at his funeral.

Even now, it is how much of Western New York envisions him. The power of it, his sister said at the museum, is built on an expression that was not really typical.

“When I remember him, I remember him smiling,” Donna said. “He had a smile that could light up a room.”

As for Davis, a Buffalo native whose studio is in Atlanta, she said the exhibit will stay up into September. It was inspired by the death of her father, a longtime Buffalo schoolteacher. In the old days, he would go with her as she photographed grain elevators and other landmarks in the Old First Ward, and she returned there in his absence to catch a sense of what she lost.

Sean Kirst: A photographer captures lasting image of Officer Craig Lehner

She stopped one day when she noticed a family on a porch on Hamburg Street, seeing something memorable in how a mother and children looked toward the street. Davis explained why she was there. A woman named Tina Flanagan hurried down from the porch and said, “I’m so sorry.”

Flanagan is the same woman whose promise of revelation within the Old First Ward provided a title for the show. Davis tried to honor that trust by capturing an intimacy and urgency she calls "the fragile state of life." Looking back, it was epitomized by her brief moments with Lehner, as Shield wandered in alert circles around them.

She remembers asking Lehner if he ever felt alone at the K9 grounds.

“It's not lonely,” he said. “I’ve got my dog.”

As Davis shared the story, Donna Lehner reached for a dog tag she wears around her neck, next to an angel wing necklace from a family support group. The dog tag is a tribute from Lehner's 105th Military Police Unit, of the New York Army National Guard. One side holds his name and personal information.

Donna flipped it over. Davis, startled and moved, raised a hand to her chest.

The other side holds her image of Lehner.

In the gallery, her children around her, Donna, 38, sifted through an avalanche of memories. Her phone case carries an image of her with Craig as little children, her brother wearing the Superman pajamas that led to a lifetime nickname. She said small things happen all the time – she spoke with particular emotion of the sudden appearance of many blue jays – that to her send quiet signals her brother is still around.

She was less than two years older than Lehner, a guy of fierce immediacy who would sometimes call at 3 a.m. for long talks about whatever matter regarding love or work was at the center of his life.

The siblings grew up listening to every form of music imaginable, from country to classic rock, but her brother settled on Guns N’ Roses as a favorite band. She remembers him as a restless child, a kid "who was constantly at the principal's office" until their mother sat him down when he was in junior high.

There are two ways in life to attract attention, she told her son. The easy one is being disruptive, for no reason. The harder route, with the greater payoff, is to discipline yourself to finding ways to make a difference.

“Instead of always drawing the negative,” she told him, “do something good."

Donna believes it sank in. As a teenager, Lehner decided to enlist in the Guard, a major step toward the many tales of selflessness shared after his death.

Close friends recalled his intuitive ability to sense in one swift moment how someone else was feeling, whether it was on duty in Iraq, or as a police officer in a chaotic moment, or as someone who simply ran into an old high school friend who needed help.

“We really know now,” Donna said, “how much he was doing for other people.”

Her brother, she said, fell in love with the city he patrolled. He did not see Buffalo cynically but instead moved there and told his family he could feel it coming back. “He was an optimist about it,” Donna said.

She said he also balanced a cascade of grief. Their brother Tom died years ago from injuries in a motorcycle crash, while their brother Jeff was killed in a fall on a construction job eight months before Lehner's death in the river. Six years ago, their father died from cancer, and Lehner also lost several close friends in Iraq.

All of it, Donna said, was part of her brother’s world on the quiet night he met Davis.

In the photo, Lehner seems to look straight into you, his expression a mesh of warmth, humor and sadness. It is an image our community always will associate with him, a gift of vulnerability and soul, and it exists only because of a seemingly random meeting between strangers one night in the Old First Ward.

To Donna, it is one more reason she does not believe in chance.

“I believe in signs from above,” she said, eyes locked onto her brother.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Read more of his work in this archive or email him at skirst@buffnews.com

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