IMG-1977 (1)By TOMA

(short story, play, foundation for a film)


Date: April 18th, 2019

Place: Ceiling Hall, Main Campus

Event: GADA, Georgia Architectural Design Association Hall of Fame Ceremony 2019

Awardee: Dr. John H. Leo (Associated Degrees requested not to be listed)

Applause as a gentleman walks onto the stage

Dr. Jonathan Walyes, AIA, PE, Introduction:

I want to thank all of you for coming here on this beautiful Spring night in Savannah. It is such a flowering season amidst the Magnolias and the hanging Spanish moss on the great Oaks. We appreciate your coming here tonight to honor Dr. John Howard Leo, Professor Emeritus, more importantly for his work in the field of Architectural Design. He had a circuitous route to Georgia from Maryland. A Freshman at 57 years of age in 1984. He’ll be celebrating his 93rd birthday soon. A winner of The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the AIA Gold Medal, and recently, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, he has been so busy, as a Trustee, on Boards, leading Chairs, and with Associations and National, State, and Local Committees and garnered so many accolades over the last 25 years, that even Tiger Woods is looking back, reminding him of his 81 victories. We know he also loves golf, so we had to insert that in. This is a special night for a special person, so let’s soak up the occasion presented by GADA, the Georgia Architectural Design Association whose members, many are here tonight, make up the most talented architects and designers and even some engineers, {laughter from the gallery} throughout the state. The award will be given by the current President of GADA, Dr. Dylan Florence, Dr. Florence…


Dr. John Leo, “Leo” as we affectionately call him, wasn’t always a Doctor, nor was he an Architect or Designer, or the man whom you will see before you in a few minutes. Born in 1927 in Dewey, Maryland, he had a fairly typical childhood, went to school though he walked a mile to get there, attended college in the 1940’s at Maryland, missed going to war due to a childhood injury to his right foot, but settled into Finance, and lived life like most of us do, peacefully, ethically, diligently, on one path which leads to retirement. A newspaper man might say “he was a career switcher” or “he changed careers” but this would be selling the story short, a page C5 story which should have been front page news, the lead, in great bold letters… well, it is now. Dr. John H. Leo, please come up to the podium…

Standing Ovation

John, Tonight we honor you with the GADA Award for Distinguished Service in the field of Architecture and Design and induct you into the 2019 Georgia GADA Hall of Fame.

Standing Applause and Ovation

The stage is all yours Leo.

“Thank you. Please sit. Please sit. All great literature starts in medias res, in the middle of things, so this is where I will start because it was as it was…

Frightened frankly by it all, I had already made the most dramatic move in quitting my job, so it was this lingering feeling that settled in each and every day until I awaited this next giant leap of faith. Faith really isn’t the right word. For almost 30 years as many of you know, I had worked in the finance industry, my first career, and if you add the fact that I had been cutting lawns, pumping gas since 15 and a half, you might say my working life added up to 42 years at the time. Father, being a government worker, and I taking a more entrepreneurial role, not precisely, but incentives were part of my working contracts most of my adult life, I guess I had taken a step forward economically, for the family’s next generation. Frugality might have been the upshot of working with and in money, having been a child of the Depression, but there was no joy in it. I should say little joy in it for as you also might know, I am still a proud father of two, and the six grandchildren have certainly been worth what seemed like a life spent making and paying down debt which seemed to find me all times of the day and night, around the corners of every avenue, and even in the drain pipes of my much traveled city lights. I remember being up late one night, under the dim light of a lamp, working on a spreadsheet. No it wasn’t a candle, it was an actual lamp. It was literally and figuratively the eleventh hour. I felt like I was using a tweezer to pick up numbers off a yellow legal pad, placing each into their own little rectangular coffin, one after the other, row after row, column after column, into coffin after coffin, one monumental cemetery of dead, lifeless figures. You all know the drill because most of you lived it and are still living it, while looking up at the clock and hoping it doesn’t run out. But this is a success story, and I welcome you all here this evening, “Friends, Nomads, Mercantile Men.”

“Earnest” is a word that Oscar Wilde used in his titled play, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He used it as a play on words with the name of course but “Earnest” has varied meanings: Intense conviction, always Eager to show, much like to the verb to earn, striving towards exactness, the ideal. There is movement in the word, constantly striving to excel towards that goal, not a bad thing certainly, to want to do the right thing as much as possible, humanly possible, but you know the rest, et cetera… I led a life in earnest of things: serious, staid, steady, always towards that “reach beyond your grasp” as Robert Browning wrote. I had led a life up to that point, in the buying of objects, borrowing too, to reach in earnest a level of sustainability, pride I guess, a race to the middle class if we want to be serious about it. At one moment in life, I needed this. At another I needed that. And this went on and on at stages. Each had their theme you could say. Perhaps my climactic move, you may believe, had a Eureka moment but no, it was an elevated more thoughtful moment of clarity really. I had to get out of the word “Earnest” and shift into an entirely other world. I wish it could have been as easy as those flying daredevils in the sky from the black and white silent films that jumped from one plane to another but it wasn’t. I had been evaluating my life each and every day. I knew I was selling myself short. I knew I was living in someone else’s dream. To get to Euphoria from Earnest you have to find Elysium but to get there you must use the adverb Eviscerate, meaning to disembowel in order to get there. I know that there is food later this evening and delicate stomachs, but I use this term because this is what has to happen. I had to flush out everything I had ever known, not the core of who I am but what I had become. In starting an entirely new path at 57 and a half, that’s some 35 years ago this year, if you can believe it, who knew that I had another entirely new life to live at this juncture, 35 years to go—my I wish this had entered my mind then—all I could think of was how to take this critical side step, where everyone and everything I had ever known, this was my “ever” looking backward, and I couldn’t do “forever” looking into the future, so I had to become someone entirely different. I had to move from the concrete to the abstract, the finite to the infinite, from the buyer to the maker, from strategy to impulse, out of the spreadsheet to the blank page. I would have to rip out my heart, and from what tiny spec of my soul still shone and say “no……no.” Elysium is a mythical place invented by the Greeks separate from Hades. Wikipedia describes it as where “admission was reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes. Later, it expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic, where they would remain after death, to live a blessed and happy life, and indulging in whatever employment they had enjoyed in life…The Elysian Fields were, according to Homer, located on the western edge of the Earth by the stream of Okeanos ” and the Poet Pindar described it as having “Shady Parks” much like here in Savannah, astride the Savannah River, west of the Atlantic, as you can see. Death in Life. Life in Death. We all must live epic lives if we are to reach Savannah.

Anxiety ridden. Anxious. All the time, I was anxious which made it harder to study, learn, think, do. Around me, those whom I loved most didn’t recognize me. I was sorry I had to cause them so much concern, even pain for they loved me, and thank goodness they stuck with me always. All my life, I’ve been attracted to the Arts. Maybe it was because I was an only child where imagination had to be my best friend. Maybe it was because I had a stock of crayons, books, blank pages, pencils of all colors, at the bottom of our coat closet. Maybe it was because growing up on the beach, you always looked at the sea with your back to buildings and mankind, a constant vantage point of horizontal and vertical space, where the sun and clouds, with varying blues, grays, greens, and browns, and those ever changing sunrises provided such varied lingering and then vanishing portraits. Maybe it was in the working of so many sand castles, where I later added all sorts of delicate shells, encrusted oyster shells, and rounded rocks and water worn timber, constantly building up from a landscape only to see my constructions eventually disappear. I could never twist a shape only build upwards save for the arch and odd protrudence which played such a later pivotal role. Natural color, too as you’ve noticed from the teal on the Stadler Building that shimmers like the feathers on a Starling’s breast.  And now, a score or so buildings are scattered around the world on some plain, in some city street, or tower in the lamplight of the sun each and every day . It is un-believable. Five colleges of design, four of which actually called me on the phone to ask, typically by some female college student, “Sir, are you John Leo? Do we have this correct with your birth date? We want to make sure your application gets the “Attention” that it needs. Are you applying to us as a Freshman?” Well, I am here in this theater tonight thanks to a Provost who had the courage…and that one lovely female voice that said upon my responses, “that’s lovely.” Only you let me in. Only you granted me access. Access to a mind not a body. Access to an idea not an exchange. Access to an empty room not a full one. I don’t know what could have been your advantage in doing so, but you actually accelerated my course work, Graduate to Masters in four in lieu of five. The summer’s helped despite the heat, this summer stew as you called it, since I was coming from a windier northeast. April and May were Heaven, and June and July were…well you know. Architecture was my first love. This is where we miss it for so many of our youth—still today.  In my early schooling, I was taking Art classes throughout all of middle and high school–the only boy in these courses my junior and senior year, and no counselor, no teacher, no one records it, not even my parents. Award certificates. Annual, year end displays and there it was… my name constantly on a wall or behind a sheet of glass in some MS or HS building. Amiss, there is so much amiss at how we understand young minds, their attributes, proclivities, and promise but many of you have heard my lectures on this matter. Amuck, he’s run amuck again. And that term “Achievement” so misguided. Everyone moving in the same direction being measured by the same stick, their definition of success. At what point do you become aware? Applying to school at my first college in 1945(Yes, everyone can gasp), 5000 attendees and only 20 admitted to Architecture. My portfolio must have been awful:8 and ½ by 11 sheets of blueprints, colored pencil drawings of daffs, led pencils of faces, a dog, hands, there was a bird—the wooden kind that balances his beak on a tip of a stick–and an open door—I remember vividly sitting in my bedroom at night with the door slightly ajar and I thought such gradations of light and shade…At least, at most when you think about it now, I was able to take an Introduction to Architecture 101, first semester, then apply second semester for entrance in your second year. We sat in a new “modern” building, remember Frank Lloyd Wright was in his prime in ‘45, a spry 78. The building was completely modular unlike the other flagstone laden campus. Most thought it an eyesore of course. In this course, we were shown black and white pictures on a blackboard, drawings, in styles and places I had never imagined. Suddenly at your school, this school, some 35 years later, in mid-life, everything altered seemingly overnight into color. In ’84, buildings were presented on Fuji film on carousel slide projector. I can’t tell you how I felt walking through the halls, especially, the basement where all the student models were kept, mid construction, toothpicks, Styrofoam board, glue, Balsa Wood frames askew, X-ACTO knives–much still like today.  I remember one student’s private project, where he, wearing gloves, was cutting out pentagons out of glass to create a terrarium. It was so beautiful seeing that come together, plate by plate, the angles being measured throughout the construction, the lifting of the plates to form a globe, and when the dirt and plants were finally dropped in. Music. My life suddenly turned from 2 dimensional into 3D, much like Dorothy suddenly waking up in The Wizard of Oz from black and white into Technicolor. Even in my high and low moments, like when we sat around a square workshop table with the Prof talking about vantage point, I sometimes felt there, amid the students like a grandpa sitting in a baby chair with a rattle. I loved the fact that I didn’t have to talk, just listen, watch, observe, admire other student’s machinations, their heroism, courage, audacity, foolishness, frustration, acumen—I wanted all of it. I awoke. I awoke here. Architecture, what is it? Art? Design? Engineering? Geography? Sculpture? Environment? Space? The filling of an empty space? I believe architectural design is more about our relationship with other human beings. Listen. Otherwise, we are in a familiar standard landscape. Architecture’s capacity has such a fault in the use of repetition, pattern, and rhythm. Breaking rhythm, repetition, and pattern has accentuated my life story. My buildings as you know have been coined “Twisted Sisters,” “Twisted Logic,” “Gyro Stylo,” and that “Vacuum Tube” comment which still stings a bit. But you know all that, and it does feel good to be appreciated. Appreciated. Please let us not also to forget to thank America, for it is in this cultural context, that such a fortunate story is able to take place.

Reciprocity is what is lacking tonight. I can not, I do not have the wherewithal to repay what this school and this faculty, and such students as these in front of me tonight have done for me and my life. What you have done for me. I am just one soul at one tiny fraction of a moment in time upon this big blue marble. At my greatest moment of fear, this school, by some committee, had to consider a single person’s dream so late in life. Fear to Freedom. From Economics to being in my Element. Achievement versus Awareness. From Responsibility to Relationship. I do owe it all to you, every waning and waxing second of half light, half dark. I owe it all to you. From me and my entire family, thank you, thank you.”



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