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Remembering Josef Lesser


Josef Lesser, loving husband, father, grandfather and friend passed away peacefully in his Los  Angeles home at 9:48 am on Friday, February 28, 2020. He was 83 years old. 


When I sat at Joe’s desk in the LARHF headquarters to write this piece, I noticed the three panoramic photographs of rail yards hanging directly across me. These three images exemplify his some of his deepest passions: rail history, rail photography and the vast breath of fresh air that is California. He loved California, especially his home, Los Angeles. 


After 45 years of producing films with his wife, Jo Ann Lesser, Joe began the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation in 1999 along with Ronald Gustafson. Since the very early days of LARHF, Joe passionately promoted and expanded its mission to diligently and dynamically present how the railroads and interurban systems impacted the social and economic fabric and growth of the greater Los Angeles Basin. 


For those who knew Joe, he was a beacon of joy, curiosity and humor. On my first day at LARHF, he arrived a few minutes late, blasting into the room asking, “When should we skip work and go to Tijuana!?” I knew right then, that this man would become someone important in my life. 


Joe introduced me to the world of railroading. Actually, it was less of an introduction and more of a shove into the deep end. In the middle of scurrying around the office, Joe would call me over to his computer to show me a dramatic black and white photo of a Pacific Electric Car and explain in detail how and why it worked. Midway through his explanation, he would make a dry joke to see if I was paying attention. I learned very quickly to look out for his gag and play along. 


Joe was a computer with two feet. I remember when a student visited the office to gather information from LARHF’s extensive library. After an hour of searching, Joe finally asked what she was hoping to find. Defeated, she told him she was looking for specifics about the Glendale Station’s history, but couldn’t find what she wanted. Joe sat down, stretched out and rattled off information that made her jaw drop. She knew right then that she found the best  source of rail history. 


In March of 2019, Joe and Jo Ann walked me through my first Scouts Merit Badge Class. This program is now synonymous with LARHF because it offers Scouts an in-depth look at locomotives, railcars, types of signals, LA METRO rail safety, model trains and careers in railroading. I came to love these days because Joe’s passion would electrify all of the middle school-aged scouts. They didn’t know a man with white hair could be so young! 


Up until his last day at LARHF’s headquarter office in Eagle Rock, Joe bounced around the office with excitement and exuberance over his future plans for LARHF as well as sharing his fondest memories. He loved LARHF and thoughtfully planned every event and detail. Most recently, he co-authored a book that combined his love for Hollywood, vintage Los Angeles and trains entitled, Hollywood's Trains & Trolleys. Even into his 80’s, Joe was firing on all cylinders.


Without knowing it, Joe taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life thus far: You won’t be afraid of passing if you’ve taken your dreams seriously. 


The LARHF staff and Board of Directors will continue to carry out Joe’s mission and  execute Joe’s plans for LARHF’s 20th anniversary. It was his wish that we continue to spread his love of the railroad. 


We will miss you, Joe. 


Much love,

Jared Nigro, LARHF Director of Operations

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