Tabb High teacher, coach Joe Levi remembered for his humor and empathy

Cancer claimed Joe Levi quickly, seven weeks after diagnosis, a cruel swiftness that could have made his death agonizing to so many.

To his family. To his colleagues and friends on the faculties of Tabb and Peninsula Catholic high schools. To the hundreds of boys tennis players he coached. To the scores of former students who called the government instructor "my favorite teacher."

But the "Celebration of Life" held Monday in remembrance of Joseph Henry Levi, who died on Sept. 10 at 65 years old, was as true to its name as any you'll ever witness. Sure some tears flowed, but in far smaller amounts than the laughter that echoed throughout the Tabb High auditorium and into the hallways of the school he loved so dearly.

Levi would have approved. He was serious about teaching, so much so that he left the order of Augustinian Brothers as young man because he felt he could be a more directly positive influence on youngsters as a teacher.

But teaching was his stage, one on which he performed for 10 years at Peninsula Catholic and for 23 more at Tabb. He loved entertaining his students with groan-inducing jokes and puns, or antics that made learning government fun for teenagers who often find the subject dry.

"When I was teaching the Middle Ages, Joe would come into class and give the Gregorian Chant," said Tabb teacher and wrestling coach Doug Roper. "He actually had a good voice and his Catholic background was something else.

"Any time I'd do something with religion, he'd be able help out with his knowledge and make it entertaining for the kids."

Michael Atlee, a 1992 Tabb graduate, said that students loved engaging in political discussions with Levi, because he took a position and then challenged them to support theirs. Levi, a native of the Philadelphia area inspired by John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign visit there, invariably took the liberal position amid his often-conservative students at Tabb.

But he filled his shelves with books authored by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity so he could debate either side.

"There was no use arguing with him," former Tabb student Andrew Williams said. "He knew everything."

If students like Williams and Atlee were challenged to debate with Levi, they found it easy to talk to him because he genuinely cared about them.

"He was the teacher I would come in after the weekend and tell everything," said Williams, a 2009 graduate studying medicine at VCU. "He gave you a sense that you could confide in him."

Said Atlee, now a lawyer, "He treated you as a peer, a friend and as someone who had something important to say. That takes an exceptional person in a teacher-student relationship."

Levi's humor drew them close.

"Before a visitor would come to his class, Joe would tell the students the question he was going to ask them when the visitor arrived," Roper said. "Everyone would have to raise their hand to make it look like they all had learned the answer.

"The catch was that those who didn't really know the answer would raise their left hand, so that he could pick someone with their right hand up. Joe knew how to make himself and the kids look good, and give everyone a good laugh in the process."

Colleagues also remember Levi for his undying loyalty to Tabb High. Between coaching the tennis team and serving as assistant athletic director, Levi spent the majority of his afternoons and evenings at the school.

"I thought I spent a lot of hours here, but it embarrassed me how many hours Joe spent at Tabb," said former principal Cris Zanca, wearing Levi's favorite model Tabb sweatshirt at the celebration.

Said Tabb coach Doug Baggett: "He loved Tabb High and never went home. Home was just a place to rest his head. He ate most of his meals here, because he was always here helping out.

"He was a very giving person."

Levi gave respect to his own tennis players as well as opponents, congratulating both after each match. Zanca said that a current colleague's child who competed against Tabb said the only reason he liked Tabb was because of the class Levi showed.

"Joe was an ambassador for Tabb in many ways," Zanca said.

Even after retiring from teaching in 2009, Levi continued to serve as assistant AD and tennis coach. He was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after the 2009-10 school year and decided to forgo treatment.

Levi's positive outlook and spirituality helped him face death with grace. To underscore it, Brenna Levi, his niece, quoted a saying he liked by William Penn: "For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity."

Joe Levi left a huge Tiger print.

Many colleagues say he mentored them through difficult times with empathy and humor. Brenna, nephew Matt Levi, and numerous students say he inspired them to become a teacher.

Matt Levi, who also aspires to coach, said, "I hope I can be as good a Coach Levi as he was."

Said Zanca: "Every school needs a Joe Levi. I'm glad we had the original."

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