Starting Over

January 5, 2022

As I approach my last year at Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture I reflect on the big takeaways after leading the firm for over 30 years. I’ve always considered myself enormously lucky. I took over leadership of a legacy firm in 1989 from two greats: Al Dreyfuss & Len Blackford. They trusted me as I shaped a new path. Running an architectural practice can be complex and difficult – I feel grateful for the challenging experiences of my early life that taught me an invaluable lesson: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. 

I was raised in Cuba of a Cuban mother and an American father. I’ve always navigated the two worlds and have these two distinctly different lenses to see the world through.

John with his mother Juanita and father Alfred, in the garden of their home in Cespedes, Cuba, one of the largest sugar mills in Camaguey Province.

During the Cuban Revolution in 1960, Fidel Castro began the process of nationalizing the Sugar Industry and our family was forced to flee.  We were required to leave everything of value and just go.

My mother was pregnant with her sixth child; I am the fourth of her nine kids and I was eight years old. My family’s entire wealth was left there in Cuba and our future was unknown.

John (bottom right) and family in Varadero, Cuba, two years before the Revolution.

As we were taken to the airport to leave, my father put a $100 bill in my shoe and my brother Philip’s shoe. When we got to the airport, there were guards with machine guns at every door inspecting passengers who were trying to leave with valuables. I have never been so scared in my life as when my family and I were walking across the tarmac to the waiting DC3 at the Havana Airport, ready to take us to a new beginning in New Orleans. 

I was sure that the soldiers with the machine guns were going to shoot me dead… but I climbed the stairs and into the plane, still alive. I was ready to start over.

We started a new life in New Orleans.  Our house became the place where other refugee family members came from Cuba and stayed until they could find their way.  We had a house full of uncles, aunts and cousins. After living a life of privilege in Cuba, we suddenly lived in a rented house that would eventually be condemned; I was sleeping on cots and doing kitchen duty. My mother taught me from this: you must be able to stand in a room naked and be everything that you are.  It was part of starting over.

John’s family arriving on a Pan Am flight from Havana to New Orleans in 1960.  His mother is shown pregnant with her 6th son.

My father designed, built and ran sugar mills for other investors. This moved us around the world. We lived in many different places, mostly in remote locations including a small town in the Florida Everglades and a remote out-island called Abaco in the Bahamas. I learned each time how to start over, learned new ways to be in order to get along and chart a new path for myself. At the age of 13, I went away to live in Miami to go to school as there were no high schools on Abaco.

I mark my time living away from my family during high school as significant in that it built character and made me enormously independent. Out of necessity, I learned how to cook, organize my life, navigate the logistics of getting around, and generally be responsible for myself at all times. I had absolutely no guidance except my own instincts, and I learned to rely on them. I learned that part of starting over requires good foundational skills.

Now, more than 50 years later, I reflect on starting over. The firm’s next chapter is in the hands of the next generation. I advise them from the sidelines and provide them with some of the wisdom that I have from a lifetime of starting over. I trust them as Al Dreyfuss & Len Blackford trusted me to take this legacy firm to the next level and shape a new path that is theirs. Life is a process of constantly starting over.