VILLA GROVE — John Leon was a man who lived his life focused on helping others. The retired optometrist and former mayor of Villa Grove died last week at 90.
"Everyone I've talked to has said, 'I loved your dad. He was one of a kind,'" said his son, Steve Leon.
The son of poor Italian immigrants who were raising seven children during the Depression, Dr. Leon spent several years of his childhood living in orphanages, when his parents were unable to care for him and his siblings. He gained notoriety in high school as a strong athlete, who later went on to become a Golden Gloves boxer and a semi-professional football player.
After serving in World War II as a machinist first mate in the Navy Seabees, Dr. Leon worked his way through Monroe College of Optometry in Chicago. After graduation, Dr. Leon and one of his classmates saw a need for optometry clinics in southern and central Illinois. The two young men flipped a coin for the section of the state they would land. After the flip, Dr. Leon went about finding a location to start his optometry practice in the central area of the state.
He and his wife, Helen, soon decided on Villa Grove as a place to build a business and a family together, which included three sons and two daughters. The Leons were married for 48 years; Helen Leon died in 1995.
Steve Leon, who followed his father into optometry and now operates the Leon Optometry Clinic started in 1949, said his father built a successful practice by focusing on quality patient care.
"He loved his patients and gave them the utmost care," he said.
Steve said his father would often drive patients to other clinics that might have equipment or services that he was not able to provide. He would also accept goods and services in exchange for payment during hard times.
"He would not turn anybody away," Steve said.
Leon also served as mayor of Villa Grove for 28 years. During his administration, he developed the first sewer plant for the town, constructed a new water tower and worked to get the Embarass River cleaned up to alleviate flooding through town and provide more recreational opportunities.
Alderman Ron Hunt, who also served on the council during Leon's administration and succeeded him as mayor, remembers Leon for his dedication to the city.
"He always had the city at heart and the people of the city," Hunt said.
After a city park was named Dr. John Leon Park, son Mike Leon said, his father was humbled by the honor.
"He worked really hard on getting that river cleaned up and to help people," said Mike, who is the Villa Grove building inspector and chair of the planning and zoning board.
Leon also helped establish a Little League program and the Boy Scouts in Villa Grove.
"He was genuinely concerned about kids," said Mike.