Joseph Leopold Gilbert Bissonnette, 85, known to the multitude that loved him simply as “Leo,” passed on to his eternal reward peacefully at his home in Willimantic in the wee hours of Tuesday, March 9, 2021 after a prolonged illness, blanketed by the love of his extended family and in the presence of his adoring wife Adeline (Gingras) Bissonnette and his loving son Todd Bissonnette. Although his beloved daughter Cindy (Bissonnette) Julius could not physically be there, her sweet devotion was present and equally felt.
Leo was born in Willimantic, Connecticut on September 10, 1935, the youngest son of Albert Bissonnette and Claire (Ouellette) Bissonnette. A year after his birth, his father Albert was killed in a tragic accident, leaving his mother to raise him, his older brothers Aime and Jean-Guy, and his sister Therese. This humble beginning instilled in him the determination to secure a solid life of his own. He attended St. Mary-St. Joseph school in Willimantic as a young boy. After a childhood of teaming up with his closest brother Jean-Guy to build forts, set up ice cream stands on the sidewalk, and craft soapbox derby cars to enter into local races (among many, many other carefree and sometimes mischievous youthful pursuits) he enrolled in Windham Regional Technical School where the seeds of his primary lifetime career as an electrician were planted.
At the age of 18, Leo enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, where he continued his training as an electrician at the El Toro Marine Corps base in Santa Ana, California after serving a brief stint in Korea at the tail end of the Korean War. Although he never saw combat, being a Marine was a source of great pride for Leo and gave him the discipline he needed to follow through with his dreams of a fruitful life.
After serving in the Marine Corps, Leo returned home to Willimantic to look after his mother Claire and found a career with Pratt and Whitney Aircraft in East Hartford, Connecticut as an electrician. He became active with the Club Civique et Social Franco Americain in Willimantic and served as “French Club” president in 1965 – the year he married. His brother Jean-Guy had already married his own wife Bernice, who was one of eight very special sisters. One of those beautiful sisters was named Adeline. After a long courtship, where they discovered that they were perfectly suited as dance partners, Leo took Adeline as his wife to begin the dance of life. They started a family and had two children – Todd first and Cindy second, and they raised them with the perfect blend of old-school discipline and an abundance of love. Being ideal parents, they always made a little room for their own fun. Besides the steady stream of dances and social functions at The French Club, Leo and Adeline found themselves in a small, tight-knit group of kindred souls known famously as “The No-Doz Club” which met monthly for fun, laughter, and playing cards. The No-Doz Club ended up lasting over 25 years. The memories lasted a lifetime. On the work front, Leo continued at Pratt and Whitney for many years until landing a job next door at United Technologies Research Center where he became a lead man electrician. These twin careers comfortably nourished the family until he “retired.”
Now, for any of you reading who knew Leo, being an electrician was merely a paycheck. He was more importantly a magnificently gifted handyman – capable of destroying a bathroom and restoring it to new glory, installing a new roof, building a carport or addition to a home, re-wiring the electrical service on a house, bringing an ancient mountain cabin back to life, cutting a few skylights into a roof, changing outdated plumbing, or sheetrocking and taping a seemingly infinite amount of walls and ceilings. True to his French-Canadian heritage, Leo was a master sheetrocker and taper and worked so quickly and efficiently that watching him work was like watching poetry in motion. Soon after he “retired,” Leo discovered to his own glee that there was nothing he couldn’t do if he put his mind to it, and his talents were always available for the receiving. He often did these jobs for the cost of the materials alone and his invoices often included a zero balance for labor for those closest to him. It was his passion. He loved to serve others, and blessed everyone he met with his kind heart, his quick wit, his playful sense of humor, and his boundless enthusiasm. He had a van loaded with tools, always at the ready, so that he could quickly respond to any emergency whether it be big or small. He never viewed his retirement as a stop sign, rather, he viewed it simply as a career change and never slowed down. As his sister-in-law Irene (Gingras) Belisle so famously said years ago, “If you know Leo, he DID something for you.” And a LOT of people knew Leo. To fill up time in-between projects after “retirement,” Leo once again joined with his brother Jean-Guy to assist him with his growing CAHI-certified home inspection business where they, for a period of years, became the most respected and trusted team in the Northeast Corner.
One of Leo’s other passions was focused towards his beloved St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in Willimantic. His devotion to his church cannot be understated. As a youth, he served as an altar boy. As an adult, he was a devout communicant who never missed a weekend mass. As a father, he participated in the baptisms, first communions, and holy confirmations of his two children. The priests and the congregation of St. Mary nourished his soul and informed his spirituality. In Leo’s “retirement” he began to give back to the church that gave his life so much meaning. And he gave back in spades. He became a lector and a Eucharistic Minister at the weekend masses, where he fulfilled what he considered to be his spiritual duty. But that wasn’t enough. Any large church building needs a caretaker, so who are you going to call? That’s right. LEO. For many years, if his phone rang and it was Father “Red” Lamoureux needing a job done at St. Mary, Leo would literally drop what he was doing, barely finishing his morning cup of coffee, and zip over in his van full of tools to get the job done. He was one of the very few who had keys to the church and over the years he rewired the electrical service, installed all-new energy-efficient lighting, and attended to everyday repairs. His piece de resistance, though, was illuminating the spires of St. Mary church for the first time ever with a grand display of lights that can be seen for miles around. When you drive by St. Mary after sunset, look up at the spires and know that Leo is winking back at you.
For fun and relaxation as a family man, one of Leo’s favorite things to do was to pack up his pickup truck with gear on a sunny Sunday summer morning, scoop up his loyal brother-in-law and cherished friend Normand “Flash” “Busy-Do” Belisle and head to Mashamoquet State Park in Pomfret to set the stage for countless family gatherings attended by nearly all of his local extended family. Leo and Flash would arrive and set up the “kitchen” and cook breakfast for the early birds underneath the canopy of the pines while the children frolicked in the brook and on the hiking trails nearby. As the morning turned to afternoon, Flash would get the clam chowder going and Leo would make his famous clam fritters. More and more family would arrive and the pair would make certain that all were attended to for lunch and dinner until everyone finally left the park before sundown. They quite literally fed the masses. We were happy, but they were happier. It’s just what they did - selflessly and with a quiet, humble pride. After the Mashamoquet days, Leo and Flash along with Leo’s brother Jean-Guy shifted their attention to feeding the family at the grand family reunions that were held around the country. These reunions would not have happened without this trio of servants. In between official reunions, Leo and Adeline would host “BLEO” breakfasts at their home in Willimantic that served as mini-reunions when out-of-state relatives came to town, because in THEIR family too much family was NEVER enough.
Leo dabbled a bit in golf, and although he rarely broke 100, he and his brothers-in-law and nephews always had a grand time hitting the links. Over the years of mini-reunions, the BBB&G Golf Tournament was born and grew into a full-fledged annual event, replete with receptions, awards, and accolades served up with a healthy dose of laughter. Just about the only time Leo ever relaxed was when he and Adeline made their trips to Fort Myers, Florida every few years to spend time with his brother Aime, his half-brother Patrick, his sister Therese and all of their families. They would all head out on the boat after breakfast to do a little bit of cruising in the gulf and then dine at fine restaurants in the evening - telling stories, relishing memories, and creating new ones. Even in his relaxation, Leo was probably installing electrical outlets or sheetrocking walls while he was there. It was the way he rolled. Honestly, if Leo wanted to truly relax, he would just go to bed. A good night’s sleep was all he really needed to attack the next day’s roster of projects.
Of all Leo’s passions, though, perhaps the greatest unexpected pride and joy he ever experienced was becoming a grandfather to his daughter Cindy’s two boys – Maxwell Isley Julius and Dante Emmanuel Julius. Max and Dante brought the child back out in Leo. He hung a rope swing from a high tree limb in his backyard for them and swung on it himself. He built them a crazy go-cart harkening back to his soapbox derby days and took it for a few rides himself. He taught them to use a pressure washer to spray the house down, and introduced them to the tools in his workshop. They shared a ton of goofy laughs while speaking French gibberish to each other, and shared a veritable mountain of french fries at Five Guys. There wasn’t anything that Leo wouldn’t do for his grandsons. He adored them and they adored him. It was a mutual admiration society that made the trademark twinkle in his eyes even brighter.
Leo is survived by his wife Adeline (Gingras) Bissonnette of Willimantic CT, his two children Todd Bissonnette of South Glastonbury CT and Cindy (Bissonnette) Julius of Arlington VA, his son-in-law Patrick Julius, his two grandchildren Maxwell Isley Julius and Dante Emmanuel Julius, and his sister Therese Bissonnette of Fort Myers FL. He is pre-deceased by his parents Albert Bissonnette and Claire (Ouellette) Bissonnette, his brothers Jean-Guy Bissonnette and Aime Bissonnette, and his half-brother Patrick Bissonnette. He leaves behind a host of brothers and sisters-in-law, godsons and goddaughters and nieces and nephews FAR too numerous to mention but whose significance in his life each merits a story of their own. If you were a member of his family, know that Leo loved you with all of his huge heart.
Due to the health issues surrounding the current pandemic, the family’s plans for arrangements are being postponed until a time when gathering a large group of people together for hugs and memories will be considered acceptable and safe. In the meantime, Leo’s remains were cremated and are currently awaiting further orders. The family eventually plans on a Mass of Christian Burial and interment at St. Joseph Cemetery in Willimantic with full military honors. Please check back to this page for updates and the family will do their best to keep the multitudes informed. In lieu of flowers, consider making a donation to the St. Mary Church Repair Fund in Willimantic, CT as nothing would make Leo prouder than keeping up the house of worship that he worked tirelessly to maintain. Potter Funeral Home in Willimantic, CT is honored to serve the Bissonnette family.
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