Jesuit Father John J. Leonard passed away on September 15, 2015. He was born on the East Side of Manhattan on June 5, 1920, to Michael Leonard and Ella Graham Leonard. The Leonards had another son, Francis, and two daughters, Eileen and Marion. His family belonged to St. Ignatius Parish, but he was the only member of his family not baptized by the Jesuits — Fr. Leonard’s birth happened to coincide with a visit to his aunt’s house on 29th Street, and so, he was baptized at a nearby Carmelite parish. In those days, a baby’s first trip outside his birthplace was almost always to be baptized.
He graduated from St. Ignatius Grammar School and Regis High School before entering the Society of Jesus in 1937.
In 1944 as a young scholastic, Fr. Leonard was assigned to the Prep Faculty as a Latin, English, religion and mathematics teacher. He was also charged to oversee the Prep Dramatics Society. Fr. Leonard’s association with dramatics had actually begun before his arrival at Rose Hill during his time in the seminary. Knowing that young Fr. Leonard was a fairly skilled electrician, his superiors had tapped him to design the scenery and lighting for the seminarians’ annual production.
Because of Fr. Leonard’s unusual skill set and work on the Prep plays, Fr. Robert I. Gannon, SJ, the president of Fordham University (and himself a former Prep teacher) asked him to work with college students as well. And so, in 1946, in addition to moderating the Prep’s Dramatic Society, Fr. Leonard would revive the University’s Mimes and Mummers, a Campus theater company dating to 1855, founded that year by a Second Division student, in other words, a Prep boy, Charles Melton Walcot, Jr., Class of 1857. The company (which in its various incarnations had been comprised of both Prep and University students until 1913 when the Prep’s distinct Dramatic Society was formed) had been shut down during the Second World War, and University drama lay fallow until Fr. Leonard’s arrival.
It was also during his time as a young scholastic that Fr. Leonard received a unique faculty appointment in the history of Fordham Prep — keeper of the ram. While the University had a succession of 21 live mascot ungulates between the 1920s and ‘70s, all named Ramses, only once did the Prep have its own ram, Ramses’ “little brother” as it were. Granite was his name, and Fr. Leonard was his keeper. A footnote to the story: when a band of marauding Hoyas mistakenly kidnapped Granite thinking he was the university mascot, the incident and Fr. Leonard made the national papers.
Fr. Leonard left Fordham in June of 1947 to continue studies for the priesthood. He was ordained at Woodstock, Maryland in June 1950 and completed his tertianship at the Jesuit Shrine at Auriesville, NY.
Fr. Leonard returned to Rose Hill in September of 1952 and resumed his Prep teaching responsibilities. He also continued working with the Prep’s Dramatic Society as well as the University’s Mimes and Mummers.
Students from Fr. Leonard’s active teaching years have fond memories, such as Daniel Genovese, Class of 1972: “I was enrolled in the 3-3 Program, an accelerated three-year program at the Prep that included the option of attending Fordham University and graduating in three years — an option rarely exercised. The dean of the 3-3 Program was Fr. John Leonard. He ran the program as he did everything — with superb competence. He made certain that all of us in this program participated in the full scope of what Fordham Prep offered at the time, even though [because of the 3-3 Program’s schedule] we were often isolated from the rest of the Prep community. He exuded physical strength that one would feel when he would playfully end a conversation with a tap of his fist on your shoulder.”
In the words of another former student, Nicholas Leshi, Class of 1988: “There would be no theater at Fordham Prep (or arguably at Fordham University either) without the pioneering work and dedication that John Leonard brought over the years. Whether he was producing or directing a show, building sets, designing programs, assembling a business staff, or any other of a long list of responsibilities he shouldered year after year, he was the bedrock upon which all the casts and crews built those terrific shows that brought everyone together through comedy, drama, and music — from the classics to contemporary hits.”
Leshi would be only one of many students who would have the chance to work with Leonard at both the Prep and the University. In fact, it would be in Leshi’s time as a Fordham University student, and a member of the Mimes and Mummers, that the University’s theater company would rededicate their annual Johnnie Awards to co-honor Rev. John Leonard, SJ — formerly the award had been named solely for Rev. John Collins, SJ, former University president and namesake of Collins Auditorium which houses the main University theater at Rose Hill.
There were rumors, apparently substantiated by the shape of his nose — had it been broken? — of Father’s youthful Golden Glove experiences. But there are other recollections, such as those of William Wasp, Class of 1965, that mention another side of Fr. Leonard known to few: “He served Mass at 6 AM every Sunday morning at the Fordham Veterans Hospital. In my senior year, I volunteered to be his altar boy. I was always impressed by the grateful looks and expressions from the bedridden, disabled, and very, very old vets. I’m sure not many people knew of Father’s compassion and love for these guys.”
Even during his years as dramatics moderator, few people knew how instrumental his efforts in theater really were, or the impact they had on theater programs far beyond Fordham Prep and University. Until the early 1960s, Jesuit secondary schools could use only boys in their dramatic and musical productions. Legendary sportscaster and fellow Hall of Honor member Vin Scully, Class of 1944, once actually played — in his own words — a “sexy female redhead” in a Prep production. Given Vin’s unmistakably masculine mug, one can only imagine what that must have been like! A few years later, Fr. Leonard would put an end to all that, traveling all the way to Rome, as the stories go, to petition the Society for permission to use actual girls in Prep productions. The ruling to allow co-ed dramatic productions was extended to all Jesuit secondary schools in North America. And so, in November 1964, Susan McCarthy, later Susan Cronin, from the nearby Academy of Mt. St. Ursula would become the first young lady cast in a Prep play, A Man for All Seasons. Her role: Lady Alice More, wife of Sir Thomas More. The play was a fitting choice, because it takes place during the final years of Thomas More, who in addition to clashing with King Henry VIII over the future of the Church in England, insisted on educating his daughters as he had educated his sons.
No one in Prep or University history has come close to matching Fr. Leonard’s 60 years of service to the Fordham stage. And more than likely, no one ever will. How fitting that the Prep auditorium, opened in 1993, would be named the Leonard Theatre in his honor — a most appropriate tribute to “The Patriarch of Fordham Theater” — a title bestowed upon him in Prep and University circles alike.
Off-stage, Fr. Leonard also served the school community tirelessly as founding moderator of the Mothers’ Club. First convened in 1966 by Margaret McDermott, the Club continues to support the religious, educational, and charitable functions of the school. For more than 40 years, Father attended nearly every monthly meeting, every function, and every board meeting, often working late into the night. His generosity to this organization has been unstinting, and he is warmly and lovingly regarded by several generations of Prep mothers. (It helps that his typical greeting to a mother at a Prep function might be, “Do you have an older brother enrolled here at the Prep?”) Years after her first appearance in a Prep production, former leading lady Susan Cronin herself would once again find herself under Fr. Leonard’s moderatorship, this time serving as president of the Mothers Club — quite an encore Prep performance.
In addition to his many Rose Hill duties, Fr. Leonard initiated the Engaged Encounter Program in the Archdiocese of New York in 1974, and celebrated Mass every weekend for nearly 30 years at Saint Denis Church and Saint Columba Church in Hopewell Junction, NY, where at least one of his parishioners would grow up to join the Prep Faculty, Rosanne Zipprich English. In fact, it was from Fr. Leonard that Mrs. English received her first Holy Communion.
In 1971, Fr. Leonard’s nephew, Michael Ryan, graduated from the Prep. A year later, the “New Prep Building” would open, and Fr. Leonard began saying Mass at Shea Hall at the start of each school day. He called a meeting with his fellow Jesuits at which it was agreed that Mass would be said at the Prep on all school mornings. That tradition continues unbroken today.
Fr. Jack Leonard passed away on September 12, 2015.
“Did you teach me?” — the line that Fr. Leonard would always use when he saw alumni at reunions. In his 60 years at Fordham, Fr. Leonard’s lessons reached legions of Prep students and their families, scores of girls from sister schools, and generations of University men and women. Were they somehow all to be gathered together in one space, for one night — for one last round of applause — the ovation would be thunderous.