When my sister told me that my dad passed unexpectedly of a heart attack, my first response was, “No, no, no, no no!” He hadn’t suffered but came in from gardening complaining of chest pains and my mom had called 911. Dad coiffed his hair, got properly dressed and waited for the ambulance in the living room, (instead of his office) because it would be easier for the folks picking him up. He put himself on the gurney. When he got to the hospital, he went almost instantaneously.
So, my second thought after hearing this was, how grateful I was that he hadn’t suffered. My third thought was, how privileged we were to have this man in our lives and to be granted the time we shared with him.
Sidney Herbert Levin, was a quiet emissary on a mission to make the world a better place, one person at a time. He personified the term, “think globally, act locally.” He dedicated his career to making things better for his community. There isn’t a lot written about him, although there were scores of newspaper clippings along the way. He was a man who did not seek the spotlight, but preferred to act behind the scenes. My dad was both profoundly serious and simultaneously silly. He was a true leader, almost king-like in an Arthurian sense; always thinking of how to make life better for those he took responsibility for and loved so dearly. He was ‘up to the minute’ knowledgable about world affairs. He had an incredible business sense, was centered, soft spoken, had a marvelous intellect with something akin to a Sherlock Holmes’ ability to deduce solutions from a quagmire of problems. At the same time, he retained his child-like sense of wonder. He laughed without restraint. He could get you to laugh at the most tense moments to relieve your stress. He truly and fully appreciated the people around him and was able to savor life completely.
Born in Baltimore, he grew up on Norfolk Ave with his relatives going in and out of each other’s houses. His family and neighbors were practically on top of one another, yet they all got along. He learned about communication early on by connecting two tin cans with a string that he and his buddy actually stretched across the street to talk to one another after they were supposed to be in bed.
His father, Jack, owned a stall in the Lexington Market, selling produce. Jack was known for his absolute, unwavering honesty and gentle spirit. His mother, Ida, bestowed self-confidence upon her Sidney so that he might be of selfless service to others. This was a lesson that might have been weaved into his DNA from the start.
With the world around him seemingly so divided, my dad learned early on, the key to expanding peace was through communication. As a teenager, he chose to become a radio man. He forged opportunities, almost out of thin air. He became an announcer, a programmer, a producer, a salesman.
He moved down to South Florida with his family and became the General Manager of WKAT, the first talk radio station in the nation. He hired Larry King. Dad was the founder and President of the Greater Miami Radio Broadcasters Association.
Beacon Council Founders: Merrett Stierheim, Ted Hepner and Sidney Levin
Once he was established in Miami, Sid really began to take an interest in the well-being of the community. Miami is a serious melting pot of cultures but, at the time, each community and geographic sector remained insular. Sidney became the President of the Beacon Council, which was formed to get each of these groups to interact and do business with one another. With this and other titles, including, President of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Co-Founder and President of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, member of the Florida Council of 100 and the Orange Bowl Committee, Sid was charged with not only developing the economy, but bringing dignity and prosperity to small businesses and families as well.
My father was all about family. Throughout his career, he was never absent from us. My sister and I enjoyed a most illustrious childhood, filled with constellations of bright moments of joy that dad carefully initiated to fill our sky. He taught us to build up our imaginations, to always be curious and ask questions, to face our fears with kindness and determination; that there was three hundred and sixty degrees around every argument and interaction; that asking people about themselves and really listening to them was the fastest way to make friends. His maxim was that a stranger was a friend you hadn’t met yet. He also taught these things to his grandchildren, Emily and Ian and happily got the chance to start to bond with his great grandchild, Oliver John.
Dad grew as a person, through the love of not only his children, but a wife who taught him to embrace that which he could not control.
My mom threw off the constraints of the 1950’s and our Conservative Judaism. She embraced Science of Mind and other spiritual practices to increase her metaphysical toolbox. She became a leading actress and director in community theater— she even became a nudist! It took awhile, but dad ultimately became the champion of adjusting; he expanded his ability to allow, not only my mother, but whomever the person in front of him was to be who they were, giving them space to evolve into their best selves.
In 1979, he was appointed Secretary of Commerce for the State of Florida. We moved up to Tallahassee. He cleaned up a department that was almost in utter chaos. He refused to run for re-election, telling a reporter that being in politics for a short time was something he recommended to everyone, because it allowed you to see how the government worked with the possibility of implementing relief for those around you. He was also in favor of leaving office before you became used to the perks and comforts, which he said could lead to corruption.
Sid Levin, as Secretary of Commerce, got to be Goofy for a day at Disney World
This was an era before social media, so the fact that my friends and I were recreating the 1960’s with a commune in his house was, thankfully, kept out of the headlines. Most of my friends seriously wanted to be adopted by my parents and, in their way, they always did. One of my friends said that the trust my dad had for him changed his life. He said, “I could see no reason for your father to trust us but he did.” My dad had faith in my goodness and was willing to take care of all the babies under his roof, not just his own. Surely, he worried about us all, but he did trust in our ability to find our own way.
Ira, son of Sid and his friend Scott Knauer circa 1981
My friends and his friends would note his ability to convey sage wisdom without a word. His mere presence expanded you.
My wife Julia was in an art gallery with Sid and Sal during their visit to NY last September. The owner of the gallery asked how they were all related. When Julia stated that they were her in-laws, she detected what she thought was disappointment in Sidney’s gaze. But before it could register, he walked over to her, put his arm around her and said, “Well, yes…but…we’re family.” Julia said it was like being wrapped in unconditional love, no labels, no constructs. She felt a palpable shift in her perception that invited her to connect to life on a different level.
Dad with Julia
At his funeral, grown men with prominent positions burst into tears telling me how much loving consideration my father had shown them. One Vietnam vet who was notorious for being a ‘take no prisoners’ business man, told me Sid had taught him to be a good human being. “He just rubbed off on me over time.”
This was something we heard from everyone who knew him. One of his close friends, Manny, who worked with him at Florida Power and Light at the end of his career had this to say:
“Sidney was a friend, a father, a mentor, a community leader and he succeeded in each of these endeavors. He was a renaissance man in every sense of the word. Everyone lucky enough to have been touched by his spirit was better for it. He was a builder, a problem solver; a man always on the lookout to leaving things better than when he found them. He never sought glory for his own aggrandizement; if you wanted a steady, no nonsense individual who would get things done, get them done right, without drama or personal fanfare Sidney was your leader. He was honest, ethical to the core and could be counted on to never waiver from the right course of action.
Sidney had flaws, he was like all of us, afflicted by the human condition. But he strived to rise above our mundane existence and be a better person. That’s the Sidney I knew: a man who always welcomed you with a smile, who could turn sour lemons into lemonade, and would always be there for you through good times and bad times – never wavering his enthusiasm and interest.
The world would be a better place if there were a thousand men like Sidney walking the earth.” -Mayco Villafaña
Sidney even took care of his own funeral arrangements. He also managed his finances in a way that would prevent any familial discomfort or squabbling after he had gone. The love our family has for one another was something he carefully orchestrated.
My dad did not wear his heart on his sleeve. He rolled his eyes a lot. He taught us to be just skeptical enough so that we wouldn’t be taken in by charlatans. Still, what he offered you was a slow, steady, cellular love that you could count on.
Me and my Dad
George Bernard Shaw didn’t know my dad, but his poem,
A Splendid Torch, describes him to a T.
A Splendid Torch
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
– George Bernard Shaw
When he died, at first I worried how I could carry on without him. Very quickly, I realized not only was he in my heart but that I could take him on, as a perspective. I could don his suit of honor, with its earnest generosity, sagacity, good humor and benevolence. Like the end of the movie Spartacus, I can now rise and declare: “I am Sidney Levin!”