Last August, on the hottest day of the year, Julio De Leon became a New York hero.
De Leon, a longtime doorman at the condop at 221 West 82nd Street in Manhattan, was taking his weekly bike ride across the George Washington Bridge when he spotted a young man standing on the ledge on the far side of the railing, terror on his face, suicide clearly on his mind. De Leon approached the man with open arms, talked him down, and pulled him to safety. The story made The New York Times.
The staff and residents of 221 West 82nd were not surprised when they heard of De Leon’s heroic act. “He’s very caring and will do anything to help people,” says Jonathan Bach, the super. “He’ll put himself in the middle of any confrontation to calm things down and help resolve the matter. He’s not afraid to inject himself in such situations. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dispute in the building or on the street.” Scott Smith, a resident, compares De Leon’s role to a bartender. “He hears about everything and anything, but he’s discreet about it,” Smith says. “He also talks to us about his personal life and his family. It takes a gift and a certain presence to do that. He has that, and it never feels strange.”
De Leon thinks of himself as a cross between a diplomat and a psychologist. “There is no life without conflicts,” he says, “and naturally sometimes there are conflicts in the building. I try to calm things down, try to make peace.” De Leon also has strong bonds with his own family. Born in the Dominican Republic as the youngest of 10 siblings, he came to New York in 1974, has been married for 32 years and has three grown children, two boys and a girl. The youngest, his 21-year-old daughter, still lives at home in Rockland County, where the De Leon bought a house in 1992. “The ’80s in Washington Heights in New York were pretty scary,” he says of his former neighborhood. “I wanted to remove my kids from those influences. They all turned out well, and I’m very proud of them.”
Residents often ask after his kids and wonder how he managed to bring all three of them through college. “This was not easy,” De Leon says, “and student loans are a real problem in this country. But until five years ago I also had a second job as a super in a small downtown building. My wife was also working as a secretary in a dermatologist’s office.” De Leon cares almost equally about the families at 221 West 82nd. “My favorite part of job,” he says, “is when I see the kids in the building grow up. First I see them in the belly of their mother, and then I can watch them growing up. When they move out, or have their own families, they always come back and introduce me to their new family. Or people who moved away, they stay in contact or call to ask how I’m doing.”
At 61, De Leon is trim and fit. Every Thursday, he brings his bike to the city when he works the morning and evening shifts. Between shifts he goes on a long bike ride. It was on such a journey that he thwarted the suicide attempt on the George Washington Bridge. He recently competed in the Five Boroughs Bike Tour, riding the maximum distance. “Yes,” he says with pride, “I rode 100 miles.”
Anita De Martino is almost 86 years old and has lived in the building all her life. “Julio came to us 31 years ago,” De Martino says. “He was a young boy and he started out as a porter and then worked his way up from downstairs. He’s also very smart. Not only does he know everything that goes on in this building, he also knows what’s going on in the world. And if he doesn’t see me for a day or so, he’ll call me up to see if I’m ok. He’s always checking up on me.” De Leon believes his popularity with De Martino and her fellow residents springs from a simple source. “They like me because I love people and I always have a smile on my face,” he says. “That’s important, because the doorman is the face of the building.”
But De Martino insists that De Leon is much more than the face of the building. “There’s always something happening where you can help, where you can hold out a hand,” she says. “We’re all too much wrapped up into ourselves. If more people would be like Julio, we would live in a better world.”