Meet FDU Donor Jim Leva
Visionary Energy Executive Always Remembered His Roots
Jim Leva combined ambition and determination with a FDU education and worked his way to the top of the enegy industry
Like so many of the immigrants who came to America to find a better life, the story of the Leva family is an inspiring one. Vincenzo and Rose Leva arrived from Italy in the early part of the 20th century and settled in the northwest New Jersey town of Boonton. Vincenzo found work as a railroad laborer and Rose took on domestic work, all with the goal of providing their children with education and opportunities.
Still, it would have been hard to imagine, that, from those humble beginnings, James Leva, born May 10, 1932, and blessed with ambition, drive and a keen intellect, would rise to the top position in the executive suites of three major utility companies.
Of course, he had some help along the way. First, he had the good fortune to meet the woman who would become his lifelong partner and cheerleader. In the spring of 1950, Jim, a talented saxophonist and his band played at a dance in a neighboring town. From the stage he noticed a pretty girl dancing with her date. Unable to keep his eyes off her, he took the bold, and, it turned out, fateful, step of asking Marie Marinaro to dance. He was smitten.
The same month that Jim graduated from high school, President Harry S. Truman announced that he was ordering U.S. air and naval forces to South Korea. Jim, who had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserves while still in high school, was called to active duty. In December 1950, just before he was to ship out, he and Marie were married.
After the war, Jim returned, having served with distinction while enduring heavy ground force attacks. He and Marie settled in Morris County and Jim found employment with Jersey Central Power and Light, rising from apprentice utility worker to first class lineman in 1954.
Before too long, he was the father of three children. Driven to provide for his growing family, he enrolled at Fairleigh Dickinson University as a full-time day student, while still working the night shift at JCP&L, because the company paid his tuition. He knew it would be tough to attend school full-time while working full-time as a night-shift “troubleshooter,” but he was determined to move up through the ranks and into management.
Peter Sammartino, FDU’s founding president, heard about this overachieving student and gave Jim a “difficult time,” according to Marie, because he thought Jim could not keep up with his studies while working nights. Fortunately, Sally Sammartino, Peter’s wife, intervened on Jim’s behalf so he could continue his full-time work and study at FDU. Jim graduated magna cum laude in 1960 with his B.S. in electrical engineering.
With college degree in hand, Jim began his rise through JCP&L’s ranks. He became a cadet engineer in the utility’s central division engineering department and was promoted to assistant engineer the following year. He was made personnel assistant in 1962, assistant manager of employee relations in 1963, and manager of employee relations in 1968. He became vice president of personnel, safety and services in 1969 and later, vice president of consumer affairs in 1979.
Even as his career took off, Jim never stopped learning. He completed post-graduate courses in labor relations and executive management at Cornell University and the University of Michigan. Marie’s father was an attorney and inspired Jim to attend law school part-time while he continued to work full-time. He earned his law degree from Seton Hall University 1980 and was admitted to the New Jersey State Bar that same year.
In 1982, the family moved to Johnstown, PA. so that Jim could assume the position of president of the Pennsylvania Electric Company. Four years later, the Leva family returned to New Jersey when Jim was appointed president and chief operating officer of JCP&L in Morristown, the utility company where he began his career as an apprentice lineman.
In 1992, Jim accepted the position of chairman, president and chief executive officer of General Public Utilities Corporation, GPU Nuclear Corporation and all other major GPU subsidiaries, the role he held until his retirement in 1997. Professionally, Jim was a visionary who understood the changes taking place in the industry and he pushed GPU to begin exploring the potential of new energy sources, including fuel cells and solar power. He was also a supportive mentor and advocate for his team; his co-workers, employees, friends and peers attributed his success to his intellect, his professionalism, his terrific ability to listen to people and forge new partnerships and his warm and engaging personality.
Ever mindful of his humble roots, Jim was an active volunteer for numerous charitable and civic causes. He served as director for United Way of Morris County, NJ, and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. He served two terms as mayor of Morris Township and was a member of the township committee and the board of education.
In 1997, Jim and Marie relocated to Marco Island, FL, where he remained active in local affairs.
As beloved as Jim was in his professional life, he was even more treasured at home. Marie’s parents treated Jim like their own son, which was very meaningful for him. Their validation and encouragement helped to spur him on to greater and greater successes in all aspects of his life. Jim and Marie provided a loving home for their five children, James, Christopher, Linda, Michael, and Daniel, and created a supportive environment that empowered them to follow their dreams. “Jim led with his heart [professionally] in much the same way that he did at home. He encouraged our children to live lives filled with joy, endurance, love and inspiration,” says Marie.
Before Jim passed away in 2006 and because he wanted to repay, in some small way, Sally Sammartino’s fortuitous intervention on his behalf at the beginning of his career, Jim and Marie created the James R. Leva Charitable Remainder Unitrust in October 2000, and designated FDU and the University of Virginia Medical Center as charitable beneficiaries. Ultimately, the University will use the bequest to establish the James R. Leva Scholarship, which will assist students working toward college degrees. Because Jim knew, firsthand, the impact that a college education could have on the trajectory of a life.
“That’s the kind of person Jim was and what he wanted to do,” says Marie. “He didn’t hold a grudge, and because that was Jim’s choice, I was all in favor of his decision to give back to FDU.”