“We've got plastic in our veins,” Leo Montagna Sr. said shortly after his 81st birthday.
He was still at work then, as director of sales, at Lee Plastics in Sterling, the company his son, Leo Jr. (Lowell Tech ’70, ULowell ’76), had founded in 1976 —having founded his own company, a maker of plastic buttons, 37 years before that.
Leo Sr. was 91 when he died in 2011, and had come to the office almost daily until the end.
Lee Plastics is a family business. You couldn't call it anything else, even with the patriarch no longer around. Leo Jr., as founder and president, heads the operation; his sister, Mary, runs the office; his nephew, Christian Smialek ’98, ’00, Leo Sr.’s grandson, is a project engineer.
His father helped him buy his first press, a used one that Leo Jr. managed to keep running for more than a decade. Today the company is a specialist in plastic instrumentation and controls for industry.
After he earned his bachelor’s at Lowell Tech in 1970, Leo Jr. went to work for a company in Worcester, only to find, he says, “I didn’t want to work for anyone else.” So he returned to the school in pursuit of his master’s. But by thesis-writing time he had his eye on something else.
“I got interested in starting the company. Then I got involved with it, and before I knew it we were starting up operations just as I was trying to finish school. And the thesis, the coursework, just wasn’t getting done.”
It might never have gotten done, he says—and he would not have had his master’s—if a savior, Plastics Engineering Prof. Nick Schott (today a professor emeritus), hadn’t intervened.
“One day he came up and said to me, ‘What are you doing? How come you’re still around?’ And I told him. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Come on up to my office and we’ll get you going.’ And he did. He gave me the help I needed. I’d never have finished without him,” Montagna says.
The Plastics Engineering Department was a unique place, he says.
“That department was like a family. Really. The opportunities we had, the good times—it was never just ‘Go to class,’ ‘Go to lab,’ ‘Take a test,’ it was always more than that. There was a great feeling fostered there. I think it’s still that way.”
Ever since he left ULowell, he has remained faithful in his support: “It began small: 10, 15, 20 dollar gifts—in the beginning, that was all I could afford,” he says. “But over time, as I’ve grown more prosperous, the amounts have increased.”
Indeed they have. Montagna’s lifetime gift total as of 2013 is close to $750,000. A large percentage of this, represented by the Lee Plastics Discretionary Endowment Fund, is devoted to the support and improvement of the equipment the Plastics Engineering Department maintains for teaching and research.
Though he understands, he says, as a long-time plastics-company CEO, that “the department’s access to the best equipment is every bit as important as scholarship giving,”—in the end there is something even more fundamental than this underpinning his generosity:
“I wouldn’t be where I am today, in the position I’m in, without UMass Lowell. It just isn’t in the cards. So the way I look at it is, I owe this to the University. Whatever I can give, I think is due.”