Sunday, September 6, 2015

Oh what a life!

Gordon Levy c 2005
Gordon Levy, 2005

For the last 10 years, and I’m quite sure for the rest of my life, Labor Day will always be a difficult time for me.  It was September 5, 2005 (Labor Day) that in one short instant and without warning, my dad was gone.  Sure we’d always worried about his heart since he suffered a heart attack in 1978 and a bypass in 1979 but he always told us he was an “Iron Man” – wouldn’t that mean he’d be the first person ever to live forever? 

When I first started blogging, I wrote about my dad, Gordon Levy, and why Labor Day was such a hard day – you can read about it here.  But this year I decided that rather than focusing on his death I would focus on his life

Dad always loved to talk and he was one of those people who could talk to anyone at any time.  Large crowds?  No problem.  Give him the stage and off he’d go.  But on this day, sometime in late 1999, he actually prepared a talk for a Rotary meeting.  And as luck would have it, we were fortunate enough to find his typewritten notes which described his life as he was introducing a fellow Rotarian.  So who better than to tell us about his life than him!  Read on…..

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss my life directions before my fellow Rotary members, and perhaps you will agree that it has been a relatively normal life that was anticipated for me in 1927 - about the time Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and Herbert Hoover moved into the White House and the great depression was around the corner. My birthplace was Fresno, where I attended local schools, and looked forward every year to the Raisin Day parade, which my father helped promote when he was not engaged in the real estate business. After all, raisins were big in Fresno, and still are a major part of the economy. My parents' families both came from Germany, my father was raised in Fresno and my Mother in Monterey. Her grandfather appeared on the Monterey Peninsula during the 1860s, and eventually opened a general store called the White House, which lasted until 1944.

Gordon Apr_5_1929
Gordon Levy, c. 1929
Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, changed our lives forever; and I remember hearing FDR call it a day of infamy at an all school assembly. Suddenly everyone wanted to be in uniform, sports were curtailed, but our activities continued - blackouts, gas rationing and sugar stamps, although many felt we on the West Coast were in for serious times. As valedictorian of my high school class, in 1944, I talked about the future of civilization and the concept of One World described by Wendell Wilkie, never realizing that my next most important speech would be today before the Greatest Rotary Club in the world - 55 years later.
In high school, besides the normal things, I prepared to enter the military service, bedazzled as we all were by uniforms, war ribbons, battle plans, and Glenn Miller. As a matter of fact, June 6, 1944, the D Day invasion, was two or three days before we graduated. In that year they called me a pretty good high school sprinter, winning the Fresno Relays High School 100 yard dash in 10.1 seconds - 55 years ago on a dirt track with subpar shoes, less conditioning than today and non-scientific diets.
I took up residence at Stanford University, awaiting my call to the US Army Air Force, and due to a lack of upper classmen, ran a few hundred yard dashes, and debated on the University team, primarily against Univ of California on subjects such as Should we Have Military Constipation uh, Conscription and should we join the United Nations.

Gordon Military
Gordon Levy, c. 1945
Once in the Army, I learned that flight training, navigator school and gunnery training, were out because the war was ending, and I was going to be a cryptographer. The school lasted one day. That was fortunate because I did not really know what a cryptographer was. We were slated to be in the invasion of the Empire of Japan, but the atom bomb terminated that plan, for which I was eternally grateful. As a result, the military took me to the Army of Occupation in Germany, barely six months after the end of hostilities, and my prior training as a journalist landed me a position on the staff of an Army newspaper - where I covered sports, war crimes trials, and put the paper to bed in a German printing shop - Buchdrukerei - and couldn't wait to get home - just in time for the Big Game of 1946, which Stanford won, naturally. And as I look back, the experience in Germany, of seeing in person the Nazi leaders on trial, of watching the Bitch of Buchenwald in testimony - this year was a highlight of my life.
Next followed several years of returning to the world of academia - at Stanford, where we lived the good post war life, and I spent one season as a sprinter on the track team, where I ran against USC's Mel Patton in the LA Coliseum. Believe it or not, the world's greatest sprinter vomited before both the 100 and 220 in fear of ME, then proceeded to defeat me by 10 yards in the short race, and a bigger gap in the 220. My roommate summed it up, when I said how badly I was beaten, "At that moment, you were the second fastest sprinter in the world."

Gordon Track
Gordon Levy, c. 1947
I attended Stanford Law School for one year, as part of a special undergraduate program, then successfully negotiated with the Graduate School of Business, coming to San Jose in 1951 with Dean Witter and Co. Why San Jose? I had been the Stanford Sports correspondent for the San Jose Mercury - working with Louie Duino, Wes Mathis, Dan Hruby etc. - and got paid 10 cts per inch, so I wrote the longest stories possible. I figured my name would be recognizable in San Jose because of the many by-lines in the sports section, and it gave me a place to feel like it was home, but that proved to be an idle dream.
Dean Witter was my career until 1974 - I was the branch manager for 11 of those years, and I can recall when I came here in 1951, the Dow Jones Average was around 240 (now over 11,000), we did not have quote machines, copying machines, FAX machines, computers, cell phones, barely any TV - instant communications were a thing for the future. We had a boardmarker to keep stock quotes up to date with chalk, but EF Hutton put in an electric board to show us the wave of the future. There was no Microsoft, Yahoo or Apple - everyone was looking for the next IBM, and they sprouted up all around us.
In the early fifties, starting a family, creating a home and getting involved in community affairs, plus building a securities business occupied me completely. When our manager, who opened our office in 1947, Fred Korb, proposed me for Rotary in 1954, as an additional active, it was a thrill and a proud moment. Fred became president of this club on July 1, 1954, and suffering from heart disease and jaundice, passed away two weeks into his term, to be replaced by Bill Powell. Fred was a veteran of Pearl Harbor, diving off one of the Navy ships during the attack to save his life and swimming to shore on that day of Infamy. That experience caused the heart condition that took his life, and my membership in Rotary has been a type of memorial to him. He was a dynamic leader, and he was the real reason I came to San Jose.
After 23 years in the brokerage business, I decided that there must be more to life than Dean Witter, and joined Ron James, who was the new president of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce and Convention Visitors Bureau - a mouthful. I spent ten glorious years with Ron, but a heart attack and subsequent heart surgery caused me to reconsider my life, which brought me back to Dean Witter at the insistence of John Elliott, your current Treasurer. I have been back with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (I already paid a fine for this ) for 14 years, and must say that Dean Witter, John Elliott and San Jose have been good to me. In the twenties, Dean Witter himself travelled through here on a train, selling stocks and bonds along the way, while his cousin Jean Witter did the same in the San Joaquin Valley. And in those times the NYSE was open Saturdays.
I still have the wife I married 49 years ago, her name is Gerry, and many of you know her because she, too, believes in Rotary -- three marvelous children - one a golf professional if you can believe that, one an executive with Weyerhaeuser Lumber and the other a full time Mom at the moment. We have four grandchildren, all of them priceless. We just returned from a wedding of our first grandchild in Seattle, and we experienced a family reunion that we often dream about. So if it goes no further, it has been a good, productive and exciting life.
A couple of observations - as I mentioned, the change in the way we do business is significant, as well as the level of the DJ from 240 to 11,000. I was not smoking anything unusual in those days when I tried to interest people in stocks. We were known as customers men in those days, now financial advisors. At that time we had five brokers in San Jose, now about 100. A daily volume of 1,000,000 shares was big then - so big in 1970 that the NY Exchange closed one day a week to handle paperwork - now it often is a billion shares in one day. During my lifetime I was always younger than everyone else - now I am given senior citizen prices without asking, people hold doors open for me, and I can get preferred parking with a handicapped placard.
Through it all, Rotary has been a major part of my life - perfect attendance for 45 years - feeling that somewhere in every week there should be room for a Rotary meeting. In 1943, as president of the Fresno High School student body, I was privileged to attend the Fresno Rotary Club, so I can almost match Ernie Renzel in time of service. Serving as President of this Club in 1966-67 is the greatest honor I have ever received. The associations and friends I have made, through Rotary, the YMCA, Junior Achievement, the Jaycees and a flock of other activities has made it all worthwhile. But as I see that there are only a few past presidents, alive, who served before me -- Ernie Renzel, John King, Gordon Graham (who lives in Wyoming) and Bill Brownton I am beginning to sense how many years have passed. Thank you all for being part of it.
Through it all, I have tried to follow the principles of honesty and loyalty, which my father instilled in me at an early age, and I strongly urge everyone to practice those characteristics, because it has worked for me.
And now a word about Bob Kieve - he is a shining light on our community scene, he has been a giant in Rotary to this day. He and I were both sprinters of sort, we often confuse people because our hairlines have disappeared, he has had heart surgery - twice - while I have only had it once, and we both treasure Rotary. He is a journalist, which I pretended to be, and we have become good friends. And, at indoctrination meetings with new members, he means it when he says, "If you cannot stay for the whole meeting, don't come." We are both glad you came and stayed today.
Dad was one of a kind.  We still laugh today when we think of all of the crazy things he used to do and say.  But a picture is always worth 1,000 words so I hope this photo of him at his second grandchild’s wedding gives you a sense of what he was really like – after all, it was the big University of Washington/Stanford football game day and Dad needed to keep track of the score!

Gordon Headphones 2004
Gordon Levy, 2004

Miss you today and every day, Dad!


  1. Very touching post, Debi. He sounds like he was a wonderful father and a very interesting and intelligent man.

  2. Such a wonderful story. I am blown away by how he captured his own life and what it meant to him.