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CIRC founder Leigh Johnstone dies at 79

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WILMINGTON – Paul LeGrand “Leigh” Johnstone Jr., the founder and first chairman of the Commercial Industrial Realty Council (CIRC) of Delaware, died at home Feb. 18 at age 79.

Leigh Johnstone | COURTESY PHOTO

Well-known for decades in the First State’s commercial real estate community, Johnstone worked for a number of local firms over his career, including Patterson Schwartz, CB Richard Ellis, and Grubb and Ellis. At the time of his passing, he was still serving as chairman and CEO of his own firm, Johnstone and Associates.

In 1976, Johnstone was among nine founding members of what was then known as the Commercial Industrial Council. Prior to the council’s creation, most state brokers focused on residential real estate with only a few brokering commercial sales or leases. In that pre-internet era, only a small handful of brokers knew of available properties or interested tenants.

Seeking to aid in the sharing of information and creating new sales opportunities along with it, the council was created to help build trust and familiarity among a larger number of state brokers. Although its roots began in the Wilmington area, current CIRC members come from all over the state and represent all of the various types of businesses that are involved in commercial and industrial real estate, including design, development, sales, leasing, and operations.

The late Leigh Johnstone, the first president of CIRC, poses with current CIRC President Rob Stenta in 2020. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CIRC

“In an industry as competitive as commercial real estate, Leigh was a true gem, and the Delaware commercial real estate community was certainly fortunate to have his leadership for so many years,” said Rob Stenta, vice president for commercial leasing at Pettinaro and the current CIRC chairman. “Leigh paved the way for our current commercial brokerage industry, and his stories will be told, and his legacies will endure, for many years to come.”

Johnstone was a native Delawarean, a University of Delaware grad, and a decorated Vietnam War veteran. He served as chairman of the Wilmington Economic Development Committee and on the state’s Economic Advisory Council.

He was also well-known for his philanthropic efforts, serving on the boards of the Addiction Coalition, Easter Seals, Make-A-Wish-Foundation and the Delaware Academy of Medicine. Johnstone volunteered as a tutor and mentor to young students and was recognized by the state of Delaware and Business Mentoring Council for his personal mentoring of boys at the Ferris School.

Lifelong friend Todd Breck recalled that Johnstone was a great sounding board for business and personal challenges.

“Under the occasional gruff and outspoken exterior, I was fortunate as he revealed his warmth, concern and sensitivity,” said Breck, the owner of Wilmington’s Breckstone Architecture. “What a fine friend he was.”

CIRC’s living past presidents pose for a photo in 2020. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CIRC

Longtime Delaware broker H. Hunter Lott recalled that it was his friend and fellow broker Duncan Patterson who got him a job with Johnstone, Charlie Woods and Harry Tingle in 1974. Lott and Johnstone became quick friends, with Lott serving as the fourth CIRC president in 1982.

At the end of his term, Johnstone gifted him a copy of Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata.”

“As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all people; take kindly the counsel of the years; beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself; whatever your labors/aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul; be cheerful; strive to be happy,” Lott quoted from the poem. “Leigh kept faith with the words of his gift.”

Pete Davisson, founder of Wilmington’s Jackson Cross Partners, said Johnstone was among the first brokers to lend a helping hand when he opened the original Jackson Cross Company Wilmington office in 1984.

“Leigh was one of the ‘good guys’ and one of the leaders in our industry,” Davisson recalled, noting that Johnstone also got him involved with CIRC and he served as its sixth president.

Chris Locke, the general counsel for Newark’s Lang Development Group, recalled that Johnstone was the first broker he ever completed a sale with when he was 29 years old.

“One of the greatest guys I have ever met – true class and a gentleman,” he said. “Leigh was a mentor to me in so many ways. Years later he would always come up to me and was genuine with his thoughts and concern for me and my family.”

Johnstone is survived by his wife, Kitty, two children, two stepchildren, and a number of grandchildren, according to an obituary. His burial will be private, but the family does hope to hold a celebration of life after pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings ease.

To honor Johnstone’s memory, his family suggested contributions to the Nativity Preparatory School, in Wilmington, or the Wilmington Rotary Club Scholarship Fund.

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