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Recognizing my hero Leonard Greenstone

The world is filled with remarkable people. Sadly, most of the time the time we do not get to hear about their accomplishments until it is too late to thank them.

So, please let me recognize and thank one: Leonard Greenstone, who at 82 is still going strong for us.

Born in 1923, and a life-long Los Angelino, he learned plumbing in his youth. That skill impacted his assignment in the Navy, which he joined at 18 years of age, and ultimately made him his fortune.

After attending the Naval Training Center, he was transferred to Pearl Harbor, which had only recently been bombed.

Because of his prior experience with plumbing, he was assigned to a Navy salvage barge supporting "hard-hat" deep-sea divers who were assigned to recover the bodies of our seamen and clear the harbor of the sunken ships.

In record time, he became a rated hard-hat diver himself. Almost immediately, he was sent to help refloat the Normandy, a passenger ship that had been sunk at its berth in New York Harbor, not by the German Navy, but by the New York Fire Department. NYFD's zealous application of water to a ship's fire had created unintended consequences.

He spent the rest of the war working underwater in various South Pacific hotspots such as Midway, Numea and New Guinea, either preparing the targets for invasion or cleaning up afterward.

After the war, he married his beloved Marilyn, who recently passed away; began a series of successful businesses; raised a family; and thought that was it.

But the oddest thing changed his life and in doing so made our lives better.

During a boat trip, a San Francisco grocery store refused to cash one of Marilyn's checks for food without a local reference. Since her cousin was a resident guard at nearby San Quentin, he was called to vouch for the Greenstones' check. The call resulted in an unplanned rendezvous with the in law and Leonard's first entrance on to the grounds of that venerable facility.

During dinner, a correctional officer was taken hostage in the nearby death-row structure. Greenstone's helpful relative was marshaled as part of the rescue team. Leonard followed.

The death-row inmate credibly threatened the life of the guard. But, the guard refused to permit concessions for his release, even though it was certain he could lose his own life.

Happily for everyone, the other inmates admired the guard's spunk, subdued the kidnapper on their own, and restored the correctional officer to his prospects.

As Leonard himself says, "I wrongly concluded that there was no bad person in prison and wondered what I could do for inmates."

Because Leonard had earned his living with a practical skill, he hoped to give the same opportunity to recent ex-convicts.

On his own, Leonard created the forerunner of the California Prison Industry Authority (PIA). And, for 10 years, he and fellow volunteers operated that organization independent of the state of California.

The idea is simple. Ninety seven percent or so of all inmates are eventually released. Isn't it better that they are released with an employable skill? Wouldn't jobs inside prison help accomplish that? Couldn't selling products help support the program? Couldn't private industries successfully work inside prisons in spite of their peculiar atmosphere?

I met Leonard when he sponsored me as a novice assemblyman on a trip to Israel. He used the whole trip to educate me on the value of prison industries. As a result, I became an apostle and successfully carried several pieces of legislation in that regard.

Besides that program, Leonard completely paid for a hard-hat diving program at Chino. One hundred percent of his graduates were fully employed upon release, and not a single one ever went back to prison.

Leonard also loves Israel. He is the guy who showed the Israelis how to install "T" groins along the waterfront of Tel Aviv, which trap sand and give the city its beaches.

He also started a hard-hat diving program for the Israelis. I met many of the graduates during that trip.

Leonard also helped found the Israeli Institute of Oceanography, the source of my idea for a ocean fish hatchery that now exists at Carlsbad and which recently released its millionth white sea bass.

Leonard, now a PIA icon, still sits by gubernatorial appointment on the board of the California Prison Industry Authority. But he is saddened that the program does not live up to its potential.

Attacked as a convenient scapegoat by both business and labor, the program seems to annually hire more unionized state employees and fewer inmates.

If Leonard had his way, every convict would leave prison with an employable skill derived from a self-supporting program.

Why can't Leonard have his way?

Stirling is a retired superior court judge who now practices law with the firm of Garrison & McInnis. He is a former Army officer, in addition to having been elected to the San Diego City Council, the California State Assembly and the State Senate. Send comments to larry.stirling@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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3 UserComments
Addie Weiner 12:43pm November 26, 2012

A man of courage,kindness, and many other wonderful qualities that makes one state "Yes" he was a great man, he was a man of principle....even though I hadn't seen him for a while I always thought of Leonard. I am truly sorry.

pat sundahl 9:26am July 21, 2011

As a former inmate and future commercial diver I am instilled with gratitude and hope for my Future. This is a man who cares. I was gonna go for training Anyways and see what happens , nowi see a little more light At the end of the tunnel

Paul Oberle Sr. 12:10pm February 27, 2011

Lenny Greenstone held a seminar in Dallas in I guess eary 70s. I learned a grat deal in a few hours. As a young fireman Scuba Instructor those 55 gal drums made me a lot of extra $$ thru the 70's Thanks Lenny/. POSr. PADI # 1210 Naui# 3112 SSI 6278 and proud to be the father of Scuba Rangers Also thanks Scuba Diving.