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BBHQ Boomer Essays:

Phyllis Levine: Another Side of the Greatest Generation

Our Boomer-In-Charge at BBHQ, Hershel Chicowitz, writes about boomer memories and current events... from a boomer’s perspective. He is sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, some-
times a little of each. We hope you get a kick out of our Boomer Essays.

What I remember about Mrs. Levine is that she was just like my mom. She was not afraid to discipline either Norm or me when we acted up. She was always involved in our lives. She was fair and compassionate. She reasoned with us; but she made and enforced the rules. She never yelled; I don’t think she ever raised her voice. But she was the boss. There was never any doubt or hesitation on her part. We thought she always had the right answers. As I think back now, I can’t tell if she was always right. But she was right often enough that it didn’t matter.

This essay is available in its entirety to all visitors. Enjoy!

Mrs. Phyllis Levine, the mother of one of my best friends from the good old days, died last September. I’d like to take a few moments to tell you about her. Please indulge me.

Last fall I promised myself I would write something about her. I have struggled to come up with something fitting. But nothing I write seems to do her justice.

Mr. and Mrs. Dave Levine had three baby boomer kids. Kenny is the youngest, Sally is in-between, and Norm, the oldest, is my age. The Levines moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio (a very affluent community) in the fifties because they wanted the best possible education for their kids. They were not wealthy, but they knew this was the right thing for their kids. It is clear that nothing was more important to them.

So on the Wednesday after Labor Day, one of the new kids in Miss Hudson’s fifth grade class was Norman Levine. Norm and I became friends because.... I donno, we both liked baseball more than we could play baseball. (However, I think I was a little better than Norm.) That’s us in sixth grade; Norm is in the third row up, far right. I’m just below him, to the right.

In sixth grade, Norm and I were auditors for the Sussex Elementary School banking system. Every Friday morning, students could make deposits to their savings account by marking them on a large sheet of paper attached to a clipboard that was monitored by a bank teller – usually an authoritative fifth grader. For me, my deposit was a dollar a week. At the same time, the teller would post the deposit to their savings book. Oh, this was the real thing; we’re talking real money – usually about $300 a week for the entire school. Anyway, at the end of the banker’s hours – 9:00 a.m. – the tellers would walk up to the auditors, hold their clipboard up to each of us, and we would add up the numbers on their clipboard. Then we’d compare totals and reconcile any differences. (However, I know that Norm was a little better at this than I was.)

After school and on weekends, Norm and I played together. His house, my house; one, then the other. Norm lived about three blocks away, but we played together often... all the way through high school.

What I remember about Mrs. Levine is that she was just like my mom. She was not afraid to discipline either Norm or me when we acted up. She was always involved in our lives. She was fair and compassionate. She reasoned with us; but she made and enforced the rules. She never yelled; I don’t think she ever raised her voice. But she was the boss. There was never any doubt or hesitation on her part. We thought she always had the right answers. As I think back now, I can’t tell if she was always right. But she was right often enough that it didn’t matter.

There was not one ounce of pretense in Mrs. Levine. She knew exactly who she was, and was completely comfortable with it; she never tried to be anyone else. Oh, there were other good mothers in the neighborhood. But Mrs. Levine was special. She was a fulltime wife and a fulltime mother, and it was obvious she loved doing what she did. Like my mother, she had interests outside of the home and her family. She was always working on some project. She volunteered thousands of hours to a Cleveland ballet company. But her family and her kids... that’s what life was all about to her. In her mind, she had it all!

We lived on one of the WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) streets in the neighborhood. The Levines lived on one of the Jewish streets. That’s just the way it was. I didn’t realize it until I was about 14.

I don’t think either of my parents had dealt much with Jewish people before they met Mr. and Mrs. Levine. But they had heard things.


(That’s Norm in back, on the far left.)

But no matter, they were unprepared for the Levines. Because Mr. and Mrs. Levine and their kids were among the finest, kindest, most moral, most decent people on earth. My parents recognized that right away, and accepted them warmly. They did the same for us. My mom was thrilled that I had friends like Norm. I went to Norm’s Bar Mitzvah; I invited him over to play with my Christmas presents. On Christmas day in sixth grade, the two of us spent much of the day playing knock-hockey at my house. Our families shared common values and goals. That’s all that mattered.

That’s Mrs. Levine in a later picture. My mother is just to her right (our left). And, coincidentally, at the other end, on the far right, is Miss Hudson.

Every year my mother made Christmas decorations for her friends. One year she made a menorah for Mrs. Levine. They became close... very close friends. Many years later, Mrs. Levine told me that she picked up some parenting tips from my mother. My mother learned tolerance, compassion, and firmness from Mrs. Levine.

After college, when I would go back to Shaker Heights to visit, my first stop was always at the Levine’s home, 3716 Tolland Road. The Levines have lived at the same address for over 40 years. It will forever... be my second home.

When my mother died, the first one of her friends I telephoned was Mrs. Levine. I still remember that painful conversation, more than a decade later. I don’t know who it was tougher on, her or me.

I got to know Mrs. Levine’s brother, Ed, only much later and only slightly. Apparently he had known my mother through his sister. When my mother died, I received dozens of letters from her friends. But none touched me more than the gentle, comforting letter from Mrs. Levine’s brother, a man I barely knew. The only time I cried over my mother’s death was when I read his letter. It was exactly what I needed.

In the last few years of her life, Mrs. Levine fought cancer with dignity, inner strength, and humor. She never complained. Two years ago when I visited, she had just gotten out of the hospital. The topic of my marital status came up again, as it always did. “I donno,” I explained. “I want someone who challenges me; someone who inspires me.” Mrs. Levine smiled, raised her eyebrows a bit, then turned and looked at her husband and said, “Dave, do I ‘inspire’ you?”

“Stop; please stop!!” I pleaded. “That’s more than I want to know!”

They were great people. They have always been great people.

When I traveled north late last summer, Mrs. Levine was in the hospital again, and I could not reach any of the family by phone. So on the Wednesday after Labor Day I just showed up at the hospital. It was 40 years to the day after I had met Norm Levine... 40 years. Her brother Ed was waiting outside of her room. I told him I would like to see Mrs. Levine, but only if she was ready for a visitor. After all, I was an uninvited outsider. But she insisted; she visually led me into the room, and just a few days after major surgery, she was as dignified, gentle, and composed as ever. She made me feel like she always did... like one of the family. And if she knew she would never see me again, she didn’t let on.

Mrs. Levine died a week later, peacefully, in her sleep.

See... that’s the problem. Mrs. Levine did not win the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was not the first woman to walk on the moon, or even the first one to fly into space. She was not the CEO of a major corporation. She did not write a best-selling novel; she never appeared on Oprah’s show; she never rubbed shoulders with Gloria Steinem. She never had her fifteen minutes of fame. She was just a mother, and a wife, and a sister. It’s pretty basic stuff. But she was one of the most decent, genuine, dignified, and honorable people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

Mrs. Levine helped raise three wonderful children. Is there anything more important, more praiseworthy or more noble she could have done with her life?

Mrs. Levine is still showing us the way. She is a leader... from the Greatest Generation.

...Thanks for listening. Today especially, I needed that.


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