John Festa, a man who dedicated his life to helping addicts in East Boston and the surrounding communities stay sober died suddenly at home on Wednesday, February 2.
Festa, affectionately known as Johnny Boy, was convicted in the early 1970s on a drug-related manslaughter charge but was able to turn his life around after serving nearly two decades in Walpole and Gardner State Prisons to become one of the most beloved and respected members of the East Boston community.
Never shying away from his past, Festa used his experiences as a former addict as a tool to educate people heading down the same road and is credited with saving many lives in the process.
For the past three years Festa ran the Festa House, a halfway house for addicts on Eutaw Street and prior to that was the founder of the successful East Boston Rehab.
“He was willing to help anyone he came across struggling with addiction,” said wife Jodi Festa who met her husband at a meeting for addicts. “He would take people back to the house, feed them, clean them up and put them on back on the road to recovery.”
Festa, according to Jodi, got his education on the hardscrabble streets of East Boston in the 1960s and early 1970s.
“His uncles and the people he grew up with in East Boston were all bookies and I think when he was young that’s who he looked up to and aspired to be like,” said Jodi.
In October 1974 Festa was tried and convicted of manslaughter in the death of a Malden man during the height of his addiction.
After serving his sentence, Festa got his second chance at life and was determined to do something positive.
“He got a job at Step Inc. in Boston (a non profit that provides outreach and recovery support for addicts) as a janitor,” said Jodi.
It was there that the Step staff saw something special in Festa.
“He had a way with people and was able to connect on a level that the counselors could not,” said Festa.
Festa began training to become a drug counselor and was soon hired as a fulltime Step staff member helping addicts in recovery.
Part of Festa’s success with helping addicts was the fact he was in recovery and had a past that was rooted in the streets.
“He knew how to read us,” said Festa’s longtime friend Richard Gillis who credits Festa with helping him stay clean and sober for nearly a decade. “You could relate to Johnny because he came from the same place we did and wasn’t someone with a degree talking from a book.”
Gillis, who first met Festa in Gardner State Prison, said Festa was waiting for his friend on the outside and was there to help.
“I was one of these guys that thought I could control my addiction and when I got out of prison I thought I’d do my own way,” said Gillis. “But Johnny was there to tell me I can’t do it with one foot in and one foot out and that I had to commit to sobriety.”
Gillis went back to jail in 1992 but said Festa was never once disappointed for the slip up.
“He was always for the underdog, the people everyone else had given up on,” said Gillis. “Those are the people Johnny helped in his life and the people he saved.”
Festa became Gillis’ sponsor and mentored his friend through good times and bad.
“He showed me that there was another way and that I didn’t have to die of addiction or in prison,” said Festa. “He would tell me that if I put as much effort and time as I did trying to get high into something positive things would be okay.”
Gillis was just one example of the hundreds of lives Festa turned around in the area in the two decades that he worked with addicts.
“He was so committed to the people he helped,” said Jodi. “His job and his kids were the prides of his life.”
Festa’s commitment to being there for the people he helped over the years was so powerful that he may have ignored the warning signs of an impending heart attack.
“The night he passed away he wasn’t feeling good,” explained Jodi.
Festa was to chair a ceremony for a friend who was going to receive his nine year sober medallion.
“He told me he wasn’t going to miss that meeting for the world,” said Jodi. “That was the type of commitment he had for the people he helped.”
Festa chaired the meeting and joined friends for dinner later that night before returning home and passing away in his sleep.
“I’m honored to have had a person like Johnny in my life because there is no one else in the world like him,” said Jodi. “He was living proof that you can turn your life around and do good and he taught everyone that he came across that lesson. He was a rock so many people leaned on.”
Festa was the beloved husband of Jodi (Nolan) Festa with whom he shared 12 years of marriage; loving father of Nicole Currier and her husband, Daniel of Florida, Jacqulyn Festa, Krysten Hunt, John and Nicholas Festa, all of East Boston; dear brother of Marie Vaccari and her husband, Dido of Reading and the late Josephine “Fina” Frisardi.
Funeral arrangements were by Vazza’s “Beechwood” Funeral Home, Revere. Burial was in Woodlawn Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in his name to the John and Nicholas Festa Trust Fund East Boston Savings Bank, 10 Meridian Street, East Boston, MA 02128. For guestbook: www.vazzafunerals.com.