From a humble beginning rose a man of character, strength, integrity, loyalty, and most importantly of faith. Big John Leyden has been on a life long journey of hard work and discipline. He is fueled by his love of God, and his family. Beginning his life as the son of an Irish immigrant, through today, a great grandfather of two boys, John has dedicated his life to learning, teaching, farming and carrying lessons from his whole life and imparting them on each generation of Leydens.
When you ask John to describe his childhood, his eyes sparkle and he passionately relates his story. "It was the best of times and the worst of times," says John, quoting Dickens. It was a life full of family, friends, and an amazing high school career that was plagued by a debilitating accident involving his father. Prior to his father's accident, John says, "Everything was so magical growing up in those days. I grew up on Marlborough Street in East Greenwich with my parents, three sisters and two brothers. The town was so small, everyone knew each other and everyone was friendly towards one another. Although by today’s standards that area is destitute, we never considered ourselves poor."
John is proud of his family upbringing and had the utmost respect for his parents. He describes his father as a, "Big, strong, Irishman with a red face and a great personality. Everyone loved him." As for his mother, John says, "My mother was the closest thing to an angel I ever knew. But when she said no, she meant it!" Then in 1944, which John refers to as "black August," his father had an unfortunate accident. John recounts a story in August of 1944, where everyone had lost power after a hurricane. John's father, who was working for Narragansett Electric, had been working for almost two days straight without stopping to try to restore power for the state. John said, "He was on top of a pole and he was exhausted. He couldn’t attach his safety belt. Accidentally, he cut a live wire and because he was leaning against a wet pole, 36,000 volts of electricity coursed through his body, throwing him from the pole. The resulting injuries were a hole the size of a baseball missing from his hip and a broken back." Miraculously, he lived. Though his father was alive, he was incapacitated for a year and a half and unable to work, creating a financial struggle for the Leyden family.
From this adversity, the Leyden family pulled together and each sibling did their best to work and contribute money to the family. John was able to find work at a local bowling alley setting up pins, but his father told him he needed to do more and gave him money to buy Christmas trees to sell outside their house. This was John's introduction to selling Christmas trees.
John was reluctant to engage in the tree business because he was extremely active at East Greenwich High School. John earned varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and golf and truly enjoyed his high school years. But family needs came first and John bought eighteen Christmas trees, each for $1 and sold every one. He repaid his father, and began his career of selling Christmas trees.
John joined the Army reserves in high school and entered the military as a private in the army out of high school. He said, "I saw so many men in the Army who didn't seem to know where their lives were headed. But I had a thirst for education," Upon completing his time in the Army, he went to the University of Rhode Island on the G I Bill. He graduated in 1956 with a bachelor's degree in agricultural education and received his masters degree from the University of New Hampshire in 1960. He taught agriculture and Future Farmers for 30 years at Scituate High School. While at Scituate, John served as head basketball coach for 18 years. He was named Rhode Island Teacher of the Year in 1975. In 2009, he was named to the East Greenwich High School Wall of Honor. Following his retirement from teaching, John was able to spend more time at his 120 acre farm, working with his hands, teaching educational field trips, planting, pruning, fertilizing and teaching his sons and their children the science behind growing Christmas trees. His wife Arlene would often be waiting long hours for him to return from the farm only to find him exhausted, in dirty clothes, covered in sap and ready for bed by 8:00 pm.
John's passion for growing trees was evident to everyone and his jovial and positive personality earned him an annual spot on the CBS This Morning show for 17 years. He created the phrase, "Real Trees for Real People," to encourage people to buy real RI grown trees instead of artificial trees. His invitation to the farm isn't just for people to buy a tree, it is to experience the full tradition of being with their family at a farm where the Leyden family works together all year to deliver a spectacular product and a memorable visit. John holds the tradition of selling Christmas trees very close to his heart.
Today, John enjoys his retirement in Florida with his wife Arlene of 55 years. John can often be found on the golf course, or with family and friends. When in RI, he can still be found at Big John Leyden's Christmas Tree Farm, now as a helper to his sons Matthew and Timothy and all of the grandchildren and great grandchildren. If you ask John who he credits for his success, he thanks his wife Arlene for her love and dedication and God, for his blessings.