Alumni

John Leonti

'Crime doesn’t pay; education pays—Big Time'

John Leonti of Savannah, GA, via Brooklyn, N.Y. and Lincoln Hall Boys’ Haven, loves his golf—hazards and all. Perhaps it’s because of the hazards he faced and overcame as a street kid in the rough and tumble neighborhoods of Brooklyn’s Brownsville section and Rockaway, Queens.

“By the time I was 9 years old I was out on the street hanging out with the guys, doing what most delinquents did back then. We didn’t go to school, we used to steal things and break into laundromat coin machines, parking meters and public telephones. We did anything we could to get money,” he said. And, some of those things were even legal, like shining shoes and selling newspapers. For the most part, however, “we did all kinds of creepy things back then,” as Leonti described it.

These days he takes the money he earned legitimately over nearly five decades as a highly respected and well-known photographic industry executive and invests it in stocks, commodities, real estate and fine art. It leaves him the time to indulge in golf, his passion for history and Lincoln Hall’s continuing mission to put youngsters like him on the right track.

Retirement also left him time to become busier than he ever was when he was working—busy volunteering in his community and throughout the country. His volunteer work for the PGA, for example, takes him to local tournaments nationwide. At home he spends time giving historical tours of his adopted city of Savannah.

Not bad for a kid who made the right choice between incarceration and Lincoln Hall where “they forced us to play football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, stuff that we’d never done before” including schoolwork.

Leonti had a lot of close calls growing up. When he was 18 months old he survived a brutal attack by his step-father who had taken a butcher knife and stabbed his mother while he and his sister lay crying on their bed. His mother survived and went on to rear John and six brothers and sisters.

But by the time he turned 12, John was as incorrigible as any juvenile delinquent could be at that age and his antics grew bolder. He got caught breaking into a neighborhood deli and, because it was his first known offense, they let him go. At 13, he was caught again breaking into another store and this time they sentenced him to 30 days in a youth house. Other similar crimes followed until, finally, less than a year later he was sentenced to six months at the notorious Otisville, NY correctional facility.

But there was something about the youngster that attracted the attention of the authorities at Lincoln Hall who saw in him a likely prospect for rehabilitation. He had his fair share of “street smarts” but he also had an inquisitive nature—the kind that can turn a bad boy into a good, productive member of society without him ever knowing it.

However, when the court gave John the choice of serving six months in Otisville or spending 12 to 18 months on campus at Lincoln Hall, he balked. The prospect of extending his term to as long as a year-and-a-half was daunting, but John was a smart kid and he was finally convinced. And so, on November 6, 1962 off he went to a life-changing sojourn in Somers, NY.

It took him six months to acclimatize, but he finally got the hang of it when he realized that he was not only doing those things he’d never done before like playing sports but also that he was studying in order to make good grades. He began taking pride in the weekly report cards that slowly but surely showed him that education trumped crime as a way of life.

Even in those days, Lincoln Hall allowed students to test their abilities at various trades by letting them spend time in various workshops on campus where they could learn trades like upholstery, auto mechanics, tailoring, barbering and photography, a field in which he took special interest. In fact, he focused on the study of photography for the remainder of his stay on campus and for the remainder of his life.

While attending Bayside High School in the borough of Queens, NY, he got an after-school job at a photographer’s studio where the owner took him under his wing and where he received practical experience and a knack for the craft. After graduation, he studied photography at the State University of New York’s Farmingdale, Long Island campus and received an Associate of Science Degree in Photographic Technology.

Lincoln Hall had unleashed in Leonti an unquenchable thirst for learning. Without wasting time, he went from SUNY Farmingdale to the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology. “RIT is the MIT of photography,” as John put it, as proud as he could be of the education and Bachelor’s Degree he received there.

He was right there in Rochester, NY—a town made famous by the Eastman Kodak Company, perhaps the biggest and most important film and photography company in the world. It’s not surprising that Kodak offered John a job after graduation. It is surprising, however, that he opted for employment at the little photo shop in Queens where he had worked while attending high school.

“I worked there for two years, and helped build that business up dramatically. But then I went to New York City, and ran a very big lab called, Delmar Studios. It was one of the biggest photographic labs in the region.”

Ultimately, Leonti – whose reputation in his chosen field was growing by leaps and bounds – wound up at AGFA, arguably Kodak’s biggest competitor, where he remained for 27 years, retiring as the company’s Director of Sales and Marketing.

So, at the ripe young age of 55 the juvenile delinquent from Brooklyn’s bawdy streets decided to do something different.

“So now, in addition to my investment accounts, I buy and sell at auction. I deal in high end art work by icons like Picasso, Matisse, Degas and Renoir. You name them, I have them.”

Perhaps the desire to keep going as far as he could was something he picked up from his teachers at Lincoln Hall. Perhaps it was inside of him all along and the Lincoln Hall staff simply taught him how to tap his talents and use them wisely.

Whichever it was, Leonti attributes his success to the start he got at Lincoln Hall and he remains grateful and in constant touch with his Alma Mater. He also used the lessons he learned there to bring up two sons—a successful attorney and an entrepreneurial college student who has already started a recycling business.

“I learned my basic skills at Lincoln Hall. The first thing they said to us was that ‘you guys are pretty smart because you've survived. You didn't go to school and most of you can't read and write very well. You can't speak very well. But you're very smart, you're street smart. So the idea is to show you how to use those street smarts and turn them into positive things so that you can do things legally and do them well’.”

Lincoln Hall P.O Box 600 Route 202 Lincolndale, New York 10540 TEL: 914- 248-7474 FAX: 914-248-8391