By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
John Lehnert spent much of his life in public service, and did it with a smile on his face and an upbeat attitude, locals say.
So the news of his death Tuesday, which the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office said was a suicide, has sent a bolt of shock through Fair Haven.
Lehnert, a retired borough police officer, councilman, husband and a father of two, was 46.
Details surrounding his death have not been available from local or Ocean County officials, who continue to investigate.
Lehnert, who spent 14 years as a Fair Haven cop before retiring in 2006, was up for re-election to the borough council in November. He was liaison to the fire department and first aid squad.
He’s remembered as a large man with a large heart, plus a smile to match.
Michael O’Brien, who co-owns Gourmet Picnic on River Road, said Lehnert was a frequent customer, and often visited with his children. When he heard the news, O’Brien’s eyes opened wide in surprise.
“He came in and was a very good guy,” he said. “Always happy.”
O’Brien recalled a time about five years ago when he ran into Lehnert after stepping off the ferry in Highlands.
“I got on the wrong ferry back home. He said, ‘I’ll give you a ride back home,'” O’Brien said.
“He was just a very, very nice man,” said O’Brien’s mother, Suzette. “And his kids were adorable. He was all about his kids.”
Michele Berger, president of the Fair Haven Business Association, said Lehnert made a point of helping local businesses, and got behind events such as the townwide yard sale held earlier this year.
“He was there helping me with the balloons,” Berger said of the yard sale. “He used to tease me about my French accent.”
After the Tour de Fair Haven series of bike races that Berger ran Sunday, Lehnert “grabbed my hand and said ‘good job,'” Berger said. “He was always a big supporter of mine and of the association. We’re going to miss John.”
Mayor Mike Halfacre said he wasn’t socially close enough to Lehnert to even fathom what kind of things were going on for him to take his own life. He was found on the lawn of a Jackson home Tuesday morning with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, authorities told the Asbury Park Press.
“This is such a tough thing,” Halfacre said. “I don’t know what was going on. Obviously it’s a tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, and we’ll do whatever we can to help them.”