A Fresh Canvas,Post-Retirement For John Russo
Despite enduring three heart attacks, asthma and slight dyslexia, he also managed a place on the honor roll at Kingsborough Community College, an associate's degree in fine arts, involvement in the art community and countless hours of volunteering for local charities.
And he's not done yet.
"I never let anything stop me," he said. "I'm working… and playing as hard as I want."
Instead of opting for golf clubs postretirement, Russo discovered a passion for art after his wife to-be, Marilyn, saw talent in Russo's many doodles. Guided by his wife, Russo plunged into the local art community, getting involved with the Rockaway Artists Alliance and the Brooklyn Working Artists Coalition, where he participated in art shows and sold original pieces.
"He always seemed a lot younger than he was," RAA President Geoff Rawling said. "He's always been a positive guy and very supportive of the other artists."
Russo eventually nurtured his newfound talent at Kingsborough. After taking every art class offered there and earning an "A" in all but one, Russo earned an associate's degree, graduating with honors. Testing his artistic talent, he also took first place in two of Kingsborough's student art shows. An abstract, colorful print and a tissue-paper collage of fish not only earned him prizes, but "professional" status when the school's president purchased the pieces for $550.
Although his academic career at Kingsborough has come to an end, Russo said he will continue his art education at Brooklyn College this fall, where he plans to earn his bachelor's.
"[Art] is a great talent," Russo said. "I love it and I just want to grow with it."
Russo has one concern, however. The demanding academics at Brooklyn may be a hurdle in the way of success.
"In Kingsborough, I found out I was slightly dyslexic," he said. "I didn't know because I was always the boss [of my own business] and you're crazy if you tell the boss he's wrong."
Russo said he was able to manage "B's" in his academic classes at Kingsborough thanks to the help of Access-Abilities Center Director Anthony Colarossi, whom Russo described as "a humanitarian beyond any belief." Colarossi tutored Russo in his academic classes after sensing and diagnosing the dyslexia.
Russo, inspired by Colarossi's compassion, aspires to one day juggle academics with working at the center as a guidance counselor, or teaching art classes for elementary-school children.
In the meantime, however, Russo plans to use his membership with the Mill Basin/Bergen Beach Lions Club to raise money for Colarossi's center. Russo has been involved with the club, which was started by Helen Keller to raise money for the blind, for 25 years and is also a former chapter president.
"As long as I can breathe, I will try to help people," he said.
Russo holds his newly discovered passion and prosperity during his working years responsible for his benevolence.
"I'm very happy, so it's easy to give something back and be charitable, and I can afford it," he said.
However, Russo's life wasn't always filled with such security. Russo's father supported a family of 11 as a commercial fisherman during the Great Depression. Before school, it was Russo's job to guard his father's dark, fish-filled truck with a baseball bat from the merchant's men, who were instructed to steal from fishermen. After work, Russo's father drove him to school, "smelling like fish," which resulted in many fist-fights with schoolmates who made fun.
After dropping out of school at age 16, Russo resumed a fish-filled life as a full-time longshoreman. He married and eventually grew tired of maritime life and realized he had to do something with his life that didn't involve fish.
Besides working part-time as a body guard for icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Russo became involved with real estate and pursued it until his recent retirement. His salty roots, however, are still evident in his art, as Russo said he paints a lot of fish.
While succeeding in the real estate world as vice president of Fillmore Real Estate and later as president of his own real estate/contracting company, Russo claimed he was "an imposter." Spending $4,000 annually on clothes and suppressing his Brooklyn accent during his working years, Russo excelled and was promoted quickly in the business world. To promote professionalism, he even hired secretaries with English degrees who veiled his yetto be-diagnosed dyslexia.
"Deep in my heart, I wanted to be what I am today, and I had no knowledge of it," Russo said. "Now I feel like the imposter is out and John Russo is in, and I credit it all to Colarossi and Manel Lledos." (Lledos is a Kingsborough art professor who encouraged his artistic abilities.)
During his years of self-deception, Russo stayed true to his children. Despite divorcing the mother of his two daughters at age 29, Russo always maintained a fulfilling relationship with them. For example, Russo said, he would fly home from vacation early to spend time with his children on a Sunday afternoon.
"I love my kids and they love me too," he said. "It was hard, but I stayed in contact with them. I never missed… a check and I never missed a day."
Russo's current fulfilling personal relationships are shared with his daughters, three grandchildren and his wife of three years (and friend for 15), Marilyn - people who, in combination with his passions for charity and art, are responsible for Russo's go-getter attitude.
"You've gotta believe in yourself [and] have a good mental attitude," Russo said. "I like myself. When I shave every morning, I say, 'How ya doin'? Let's go get 'em.' That's my attitude."