Sunday, January 25, 2009

Marion Levine

This was supposed to be the weekend when boyhood friends Michael Schoenberger, Joel Lavintman and Sam Stern got together over dim sum to celebrate the Chinese New Year. More accurately, it was to celebrate reconnecting in our digital age. After a much too long hiatus, the connectivity of Facebook brought us back together, ready to share memories of high school spring break trips to Acapulco and memorizing all the words to Robin and the Seven Hoods in college. Important stuff.

But, to quote Rabbie Burns on his 250th birthday, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”

Marion Levine passed away this week and, rather than sharing chicken feet and sui mei with Schoeny and Yossel, I shared the weekend with Marion’s family, including her son Bob, who has served as best friend for 44 years or so. In doing so, I had the privilege of reconnecting with a different, important, formative part of my past and to share the memories of a woman who was extraordinary on so many levels.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel did a beautiful job of eulogizing Marion. Listening to the recitation of Marion’s accomplishments, personality, love of family, selfless and quiet support of people in need, I realized that there had been an actual connection between Marion and Rabbi Zimmerman. The eulogy was not cobbled together from an hour’s worth of chit chat with the surviving family members. The connection was appropriate. Rabbi Zimmerman, herself a trend setter when she joined the pulpit of the area’s largest congregation, paid tribute to Marion as a pioneering business woman who worked side by side with her husband George to found Penny’s Supermarkets. At the time, June Cleaver was the popular role model for American housewives. Marion didn’t break the mold; she balanced a career as an executive with her responsibilities as a homemaker before any molds existed. As a result of her business acumen, the Levines were able to nurture the supermarket from a single store to a chain of 27.

From a personal point of view, Marion made a significant impact on my life. Bob and I have been there for each other since sixth grade. Marion was always a gracious hostess when I would visit, showing interest in whatever was going on in my life and extending various indicia that she approved of her son’s friend. When my mother was hospitalized during my first semester at Carleton, I hitchhiked home every week to see her. I also made it a point to visit Marion and George Levine at the Penny’s offices. George would give me a hard time about the length of my hair; Marion would sit and talk about how things were going at school and with my family. At a time in my life when nothing seemed fair or tethered, the stability of the relationship with the Levines helped me stay focused on pursuing goals set in less emotionally turbulent times.

After my mother died at the end of that first semester, Marion took on the role of surrogate mother. She was there for advice and other, less usual types of support. I had organized a social event at Carleton involving frying chicken wings using Dan Wright’s (
c.f., Prairie Pondering, October 22, 2008) mother’s recipe. There was, however, a problem. There was a nationwide shortage of chicken for sale. Stores were rationing any inventory they had and there was no way I was going to be able to acquire enough chicken in Northfield, Minnesota to feed 50-100 students. So I called Marion. Problem solved. She arranged for the Penny’s grocery store in Apple Valley to supply me with a sufficient supply of chicken wings to meet my needs. We used the back door to avoid upsetting the store’s less connected customers but, nonetheless, she had my back.

A couple of years later, when I was backpacking across Europe on my way to London for a semester abroad, I used my Eurail pass to travel from Paris to Zurich to spend a day and evening with Marion and George. They were visiting Europe as part of a first-class tour and welcomed my joining them after a month and a half away from home as if it were a reunion with their son. Thinking back, I must have been a real fish out of water with my long hair and dirty jeans. But the Levines ignored the incongruity and included me in the day’s and evening’s events with the group, including the president of American Motors.

We spent the day shopping. Marion stocked me with Swiss chocolate. At one point I remember going into a camera store to see the new Leica M3 (?) that had just been released. Marion asked me if I wanted her to buy one for me so I’d have a good camera for the rest of my time abroad. I declined. As nice as it might have been, I did not need a $1,000 camera (1972 dollars) but loved the Levines for just assuming that I should have one for the trip. When it was time to leave, Marion offered me a $100 bill. Again I declined but accepted instead $20 that, net of the cost of one dinner in Paris, was all the money I had when I arrived in England two days later.

Marion’s influence continued through the years. She served as a role model of perseverance after George died suddenly in 1974 and she carried on the grocery business on her own. When Bob and I started a law firm in 1981 in the midst of a recession and while the prime lending rate from banks was in double digits, she financed us at much more reasonable rates. She always took an interest in the growth of our business and the growth of or families. After the sale of Penny’s Supermarkets, she worked with Bob to shrewdly invest in real estate and operating businesses that still thrive today. Throughout the years, Marion was devoted to her family and friends and was a quiet, generous philanthropist who shared her good fortune with those in need without seeking recognition for doing the right thing.

Looking at the crowd that gathered at synagogue tonight for
Shiva, I was struck by the presence of this generation’s young princes, home from college and there to pay tribute to Marion. It was if peering through a time machine at Bob and me back in 1970. Except now we were the adults in the room, admiring the self-confidence exuded by the yet to be tried, jealous of their limitless horizons.

Of course, also present at the weekend’s events were many of Marion’s contemporaries and, on the other end of life’s cycle, Marion’s great-granddaughter. The breadth and depth of the crowds mourning the passing of Marion Levine is as good a testament as any to a life well lived. The memory of Marion, the memory of her principles, the memory of her selflessness, the memory of her determination to succeed as a businessperson who happened to be female and the memory of her love of family and friends, all packaged in one class act, will sustain us for years to come.
Thanks, Ma!


fred kamm said...

sam, thank you for sharing marion with us...for those of us who were lucky enough to have a surrogate mother when one was needed, the memory is fresh and joy-filled, even though it was about 55 years's been over a year since i've spoken to my "marion"...she's in her mid-nineties and now lives in assisted living, but i know that when i call her later today, i'll receive many days worth of joy and memories...thanks for reminding me, sam...f

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post about your beloved old friend. You really brought Marion to life in your post.
I'm sorry for the loss of your friend Sam.


Anonymous said...

Glad I ran across your blog. I worked for Penny's for years while I was going to high school and the college. It was a great company, Felt like a family. I met Marion once when there was a tour or walk through of our store. Do you know any where I could find more history of Penney's Supermarket?


Sam Stern said...

Send me an e-mail with contact information and I'll be able to respond to your comment. Thanks!