John Russo hates puzzles.
So, years ago, he would doodle whenever his family would put one together. He saved those “doodles”—both drawings and paintings—and, many years later, his third wife, Marilyn, found them in a box. And she thought they were good.
To prove it, she took him to a local art show near their home in Queens.
“What’s the difference with this, with what you got at home?” she asked him.
She framed one of his watercolors and put it in the next show, where it generated generous praise for Russo.
“Believe it or not,” he said, “I still didn’t think I could do it.”
Four years later, he’s done it.
John Russo, who had little formal education as the Depression-era child of immigrants, earned an associate’s degree in fine arts from Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College last year, at the age of 77.
“He grew up in an environment where childhood education was not a premium,” said professor Bill Winter, who had Russo as a student in a psychology class. “His father had him clamming in the middle of the night.”
Russo first went to Kingsborough as a member of the school’s “My Turn” program, which offers seniors the opportunity to take college classes, tuition-free.
While plenty of retirees, like the bespectacled Russo, go back to college, not many of them also have to contend with a learning disability.
While at Kingsborough, Russo discovered that he had dyslexia. Not only a My Turn student, Russo was affiliated with the Office of Special Services as well, which assists students with special needs.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had that combination before,” Winter said.
But Russo, who is toweringly tall and broad-shouldered, with a shaved-head and a bushy mustache, persevered in the face of the dual challenge.
The former businessman has reinvented himself as a painter and a poet and, though he speaks fondly of his past, he says he couldn’t be prouder.
His only disappointment is that he didn’t do it sooner.
“I’m a little angry that I’m so old,” he said. “I think I could be a good teacher.”
John and Marilyn live in Rockaway, a New York City beach community that, with its litterless streets baking in late-winter sun, feels like a little slice of retirement-ready Florida transposed onto southern Queens.
“The beach is beautiful,” Marilyn said. “It’s like God’s country here.”
His paintings — including still lifes, Venetian streetscapes and upstate New York landscapes — cover the walls of their white-colored condo, fit together carefully like the pieces of the puzzles he hates. And those are only his favorites.
In his studio, at the back of the apartment, he stores dozens of stretched canvases, covered with acrylics, lined up on a shelf like triple-wide LPs.
“He has a propensity to work a lot,” said professor Manel Lledos, Russo’s former painting instructor.
But the profusion of paintings is equal parts prolificacy and poor sales. Russo doesn’t sell many of his works because, he thinks, he prices them too high. There’s a disparity between what he thinks they’re worth — often around $700 — and what the public is willing to pay.
“I get great accolades,” Russo said. “But not enough in sales.”
This might be rough for Russo, who spent decades in the business world where, he said, “you’re only as good as your last sale.”
But this isn’t business, not for him at least. He might price them so high, he suggested, because he knows that, deep down, he doesn’t want to sell any of them.
“I think if I lost these paintings,” he said, before trailing off. “I’d be lost without them.”
Painting is new for Russo. He has done real estate, contracting, security, sanitation, acting, hairdressing and fishmongering, but not painting, except for those forgotten watercolors Marilyn found in that musty old box.
“My life’s been a rollercoaster,” he said. “You’re looking at a guy who never got an unemployment check.”
If the stories that Russo tells are true, he’s had a rich life: guarding his father’s fish truck before dawn in Brooklyn (“‘If anyone opened the door,’ my dad said, ‘hit ‘em in the head with the baseball bat’”); working at Coney Island’s Luna Park on the day it burned down; working security at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa in 1960, when Fidel Castro was in New York, and watching chickens roam the hotel’s corridors; watching Cyprian guerillas defecating in hotel hallways; hanging out with Sonny Grosso, film producer and “French Connection” detective, on movie sets.
His affections are evidently torn between his past and his present. One minute, he said he didn’t want to retire.
“I miss the big bucks,” he said. “I miss the thrill of the sale.”
The next, he said he couldn’t be happier than he is now.
“I want to be proud of what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m a licensed broker, I could be back in business tomorrow, open an office. But I like being around the school.”
Russo works at Kingsborough part-time and still takes a few classes, though he has already earned a degree.
Russo graduated with honors after he discovered he was dyslexic. The diagnosis surprised Russo. He always knew he had trouble when it came to reading and writing, but he didn’t know why. As a businessman, he would surround himself with English majors, who would vet his reports before he handed them in.
“All my life I ‘played the yards,’” he said.
But he made it through his schoolwork with a 3.6 GPA, thanks to the help of professor Anthony Colarossi, Director of Special Services, whom he calls “my mentor and savior.”
He feels so appreciative of Kingsborough that he now works at the Access-Ability Center three days a week for a modest wage, giving back what he can to the man and the school that changed his life.
“Whether they pay me or not doesn’t matter,” he said.
He once dreaded having to write a business report; now, he writes poetry and publishes it in the local paper, The Rockawave.
No more breaking his back for a buck. No more divorces. He loves what he does, he adores his wife, he gets on well with his kids, and he has a great relationship with his grandkids.
He surveyed a photo collage on his bedroom wall, photographs of his family and of himself as a younger man, the younger man he has called an “impostor”.
“Eh,” he said, “I had a good life.”
John Russo has no complaints. He studied the Dale Carnegie method of positive thinking decades ago and still lives by it.
“I look at myself in the mirror,” he said, “I like who I see and I say, ‘let’s go get ‘em!’”
He remains optimistic.
“I’m only 78,” he said. “I got plenty of time.”
A piece of oak tag with the phonetic pronunciations of the letters in the Italian alphabet is hanging on his bedroom wall.
John Russo is learning Italian.
Photo borrowed from The Rockawave