The Colgate Scene
September 2004

People on the go

Gary Friedle '60
[Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

At the dawn of the 20th century, New Britain, Connecticut's thundering factories produced and shipped more manufactured products than practically any other American city. By 1960, though, when Gary Friedle graduated from Colgate, all of that was starting to change.

Though many of the city's factories were still operating, New Britain was undeniably infected with the industrial equivalent of the Dutch elm blight. It would soon slump into decline as companies went out of business or moved away. Even though his father was a vice president with a local bank, "It wasn't the sort of city I wanted to move to," recalls Friedle. But, 44 years later, New Britain and Friedle seem to fit each other like old friends.

New Britain struggled through the second half of the 20th century before eventually bottoming out. Today, Friedle will tell you, the city is enjoying "a renaissance" that seems to unfold a little more every week. And Friedle, in the autumn of a successful legal career, has emerged as a key -- if once unlikely -- figure in that rebirth.

Friedle grew up on Long Island and, later, Albany, N.Y. He might not have ended up in Connecticut at all, had his father not joined the New Britain Bank and Trust Company in 1958.

When Friedle moved back to Connecticut, after completing his undergraduate education, he enrolled in the University of Connecticut Law School. Four years later, he joined a large Hartford law firm. But Friedle was ambitious, and he soon hungered to build his own enterprise. In 1966, he finally acted on that impulse, creating his own firm. And it was at that point that fate brought him to New Britain.

"I was looking for office space in Hartford," Friedle recalls, "when my Dad urged me to take a look at New Britain. He told me the town needed young lawyers."

Friedle was initially skeptical, but he looked at available office space and soon discovered that New Britain was dramatically less expensive than Hartford. And so he decided to follow his father's advice. It was tough, at first, but soon things began to pick up, and within a few years he had established a profitable practice. He and his wife, Patricia, had been married in 1964, and over the next two decades, they raised a family of three sons.

Today, New Britain's downtown factory buildings are mostly gone, replaced by a vibrant retail mix. While the city's retail center grew, so did Friedle's firm. At its zenith, it became the partnership of Friedle, Madorin, and Ustach, which endured from 1978 to 1993. Simultaneously, Friedle enjoyed a long second career as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) lawyer in the Navy Reserve. Since the beginning of 1999, however, he has been in solo practice, enjoying the capacity to be very selective about the cases he accepts now.

Much has changed in New Britain in the past 38 years. But, Friedle describes those changes, collectively, as "all positive." And he'll quickly add that "New Britain is the most misunderstood place I've ever been."

By that, he means that New Britain has an unfortunate reputation for being a dangerous place, or a place bereft of hope, as though it never recovered from the collapse of its original industrial base. In counterpoint, he'll quickly recite a litany of those positive changes for you -- two repertory theaters, an exceptional park system, a symphony orchestra, a world-class art museum, a minor league baseball team, and Central Connecticut State University.

This year, he decided to make a more personal investment in changing the negative perception. He became the new chairman of New Britain's Downtown District. Created in 1983, the district represents nearly 90 downtown businesses.

Just elected, Friedle will serve for two years, and he has some big plans for the district. He believes expanding its size -- and thus its influence -- is imperative, not only to increase the city's impact on the region, but also to better serve the district's members. It is toward that goal that much of his energy will be dedicated.

And there might not be a better moment for his commitment to bear fruit. Already enviably situated at the intersection of two major highways, New Britain is about to become the beneficiary of the New Britain-Hartford Busway, a rapid transit system being built by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. Not only will the busway improve commuting between New Britain and the state capital, but Friedle envisions it as an economic engine, a missing piece in the city's revitalization, and he is determined that New Britain will be in an ideal position to take full advantage of it.

Although he's been an active supporter of New Britain for years, Friedle is modest about his devotion, preferring to talk about the district and his vision for its success. "It's an exciting time for New Britain," he says, "and I'm delighted to be part of it. New Britain has been very good to me and my family." — Jim H. Smith

Lisa de Leon '83

Entrepreneur Lisa de Leon '83 has turned a personal ethic into a blossoming business -- and found herself riding a wave of renewal in a Brooklyn neighborhood.

De Leon owns and operates Café Kai, a vegetarian and vegan "juice bar with a twist" in the hip Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn.

"Kai is my daughter's name. It means `lovable' in Yoruba. The whole idea of doing what I do is because I love it," said de Leon, who became a vegan (eating a plant-based diet free from animal products) as a Colgate student. "The field of health, nutrition, and wellness is something that I'm very interested in and that I take personally, having lived that lifestyle myself."

De Leon, who has an "outstanding team" of three employees, runs the cozy café with the philosophy of offering high-quality, organic, fresh food -- all prepared from scratch. On the menu are smoothies of fresh fruits or vegetables as well as exotic ingredients such as aloe vera, acai, Amazon cherry, cupuacu, or sea moss; a variety of sandwiches, salads, and hot dishes; and baked goods. Homemade ginger brew is their most popular beverage.

The café, which opened in July of 2002, has already attracted a core of neighborhood regulars, and although she plans to open a high-end organic health and beauty products store in the adjoining property as well as a second café location, de Leon doesn't have visions of a national chain dancing in her head.

"One of the things that I really enjoy is that we've developed close ties with our customers," she said. "We know most of them by first name, we know what they want as soon as they walk in the door, and they love what we're doing, the coziness, the warmth. I like the idea of keeping it small, because that's my personality. I don't want to be like a Starbucks for health food."

It took 14 years after her college graduation before de Leon entered the world of self-employment. She taught in an elementary school, held various positions in higher education, including four years as assistant dean in Colgate's Office of Undergraduate Studies, and worked for the nonprofit Today's Students, Tomorrow's Teachers. But, although she felt she made a difference working with young people, de Leon felt restless.

"My friends would tell me, `You need to be in business for yourself; I see you doing your own thing,' and I would just kind of laugh it off," she said. Then, in 2000, when her nonprofit position was eliminated, she said, "I realized that it was going to be hard for me to go to work for someone else."

Having purchased and renovated a four-family brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant while working at Colgate, de Leon decided to go into real estate.

"As I thought about what I would do, real estate is something that I've grown up with," she explained. "My mom has been in the field for many years." She renovated a second property in the Stuyvesant Heights neighborhood, where she now lives, while living in Westchester County. The café venture, which she now balances with managing and maintaining her two buildings, soon followed.

De Leon, who was born in Grenada and grew up in Brooklyn, feels optimistic about her endeavors because all signs point to continued renewal in the vicinity: for example, the planned Nets basketball arena, conversion of a nearby prison into condominiums, and a MetroTech development project a few blocks away.

"At the time I got the first property, `Bed-Stuy' had a bad reputation and no one wanted to live there, but things have changed. Things are just booming," she said. "I think that trend is going to continue, and it's definitely going to have a positive impact on the businesses in the area," she said. "And increasingly, people are becoming more health-conscious, and that's definitely going to impact [Café Kai]. I think it's a lovely community. I feel so blessed."

Of being her own boss, de Leon said that "the most important component for me is the reward I feel in providing a service and a product that I believe in, and holding myself to very high standards. The minute I don't feel that anymore, I'll stop. And I'll go and sit under a mango tree down in Grenada." — RAC

Bill Evans '72

If it weren't for two January terms that had a great impact on one English major with theatrical interests, perhaps the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Neil Simon would still be battling kidney disease today.

This past March, publicist Bill Evans '72 literally gave Simon a part of himself in a way that differs a bit from the past 28 years that he has spent representing Simon's plays: he donated a kidney to his client, whose own kidneys had succumbed to polycystic kidney disease and forced him to go on dialysis in 2002.

A common exchange between two professionals? Perhaps not. But Evans says that theirs is a relationship that runs much deeper, one that began at the beginning of his career, a career that he explains was sparked by his experiences at Colgate.

In January 1971, during the Ohio native's junior year at Colgate, he decided to return to campus early from Christmas break to partake in the "Jan Plan" term, a program that provided students opportunities to pursue their interests through an independent study project. Evans, who was always intrigued by theater, enrolled in Professor Russell Spiers's theater group. The class studied plays for the first two weeks and then traveled to New York City to attend several performances for the second half of the program.

"We saw Stephen Sondheim's Company, and then wrote a review about it and shared the reviews with everyone at the Player's Club," he said. "The musical certainly made an impression on everyone."

To say it made an impression on Evans is an understatement, for he was so enthused by Sondheim's musical that he chose to devote his Jan Plan project during his senior year to writing a research paper on Sondheim, under the direction and guidance of Professor Joe Slater. It was through his research that Evans got to know Sondheim, and this networking landed him his first job as a publicist.

Twenty-two years old and fresh out of Colgate, Evans was hired by the renowned Broadway producer Hal Prince, who had an open position in his press agent's office.

"I wrote the first liner notes for the original cast recording for A Little Night Music, and I got that job based on my Colgate writing," he explained.

Three years later, Simon's producer was searching for young talent, heard about Evans by word-of-mouth, and hired him. The rest is history.

After acquiring Simon as a client in 1976, Evans opened up his own office, called Bill Evans & Associates, and since then he has represented and promoted more than 75 shows, including every one of Simon's 19 plays.

Evans said that he enjoys "interacting with the creative people on the shows, then representing them and promoting them in ways that are consistent with the content of the shows and the intent of the creators, which makes it very individual and specific to that show."

The personal bond that he has developed with the 76-year-old Simon is so dear to Evans that he didn't have to think twice about offering his kidney, and did so before he even knew if he was a viable match.

"First of all, he's someone that I'm very close to. For 28 years we've been friends, colleagues -- he's like family," said Evans. "This has given him a new lease on life, and it's a wonderful thing, I feel fine, it didn't cost me any part of my health at all, and it's something that I wanted to do."

When asked if he would do it all over again, Evans didn't hesitate to reply: "Sure."

He says that Simon is doing very well, his health is restored, and he's living back in California -- the transplant was a complete success.

As for Evans, his company is located on 45th and Broadway, and he sees himself remaining in this profession for quite some time. He cites Simon, director Mike Nichols and Simon's producer Emanuel Azenberg among his favorite talents in the theater industry.

During the past 28 years, he has represented world-renowned writers and composers, but Evans continues to credit Colgate with inspiring his career path.

"I give enormous credit to Joe Slater, because without his support and encouragement, I would never have written that research paper, and it was that experience at Colgate that has led to a lifelong career." — Katherine Trainor

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