Teacher, writer, friend of luminaries
William Turner Levy, an educator and author who wrote about his friendship with luminaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot and Frank Capra, and drew upon those extraordinary experiences to make his classroom lessons meaningful for younger generations, died Jan. 21 at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills Medical Center. He was 85.
Levy underwent abdominal surgery and died several days later from complications, said friend and colleague Robert J. Dworkoski, headmaster of Viewpoint School in Calabasas, where Levy taught.
The co-author of “The Extraordinary Mrs. R, A Friend Remembers Eleanor Roosevelt” and “Affectionately, T.S. Eliot, The Story of a Friendship: 1947-1965,” Levy was known as a master storyteller on the campus of Viewpoint School and among its alumni. Before joining the staff of Viewpoint in 1979, Levy spent 30 years as a professor of English at the City University of New York’s Baruch College and City College.
Levy often said his classroom was a sacred place where reason, wisdom and beauty dwell, Dworkoski recalled. In his teaching he used his vast scholarly knowledge and often his own experiences. What resulted were enthralling classes in Latin and English literature that also offered enduring lessons about life.
“He made these great Americans of the 20th century -- Eleanor Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot and Capra -- real and almost close enough to touch for 15-year-old kids in Calabasas,” Dworkoski said. “He made them into people who had a meaning and a lesson for them too.”
That Levy’s list of friends came to include President Kennedy, artist Norman Rockwell and actor Richard Burton was in part a consequence of his intellectual curiosity and lack of shyness.
Shortly after his birth on Nov. 3, 1922, in Far Rockaway, N.Y., Levy was adopted by Jacob Levy and Florence Turner Levy. At 16, Levy graduated from high school, and he earned a degree in English in 1942 from what is now City College of the City University of New York. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army, served in France and Germany, and earned a Bronze Star.
In 1947 Levy was working on his dissertation on the poet William Barnes and wrote to Eliot seeking a meeting as part of his research. That meeting was the spark of a friendship that would last 18 years and include conversations and correspondence about their common interests: literature and cats, in particular Eliot’s cat named Pettipaws and Levy’s cats Judy and Lord Peter Wimsey.
In 1953 Levy earned a doctorate in English from Columbia University and was ordained an Episcopal priest. That same year he purchased an ivory letter opener, a perpetual desk calendar and a few books that once belonged to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Levy wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt asking about his purchases, the former first lady invited him to have tea. In the years that followed they would dine together, visit the theater and concerts, share country drives and enjoy each other’s families.
In Levy’s writings about Eliot and Roosevelt, whom he thought of as his teacher, the tone is neither fawning nor sensational. It is the grateful voice of a man revealing a treasure.
“To have Eleanor Roosevelt as a friend was to be conscious of her loving support every hour of your day,” Levy wrote in a 1984 Times article. “It was to have your telephone ring early in the morning and hear that expressive voice ask what you were teaching in senior literature that day . . . to be at an intimate lunch at Hyde Park for [Yugoslavian] President Tito and have the chance to argue with him about the definition of freedom.”
Levy also wrote “William Barnes: The Man and the Poems” and co-wrote “The Films of Frank Capra.”
On campus the master storyteller was also viewed as a master of the art of friendship, who seemed to possess the qualities he marveled at in Roosevelt. He corresponded with many former students over the years. Former student Adam Sowlati, who now attends Stanford University, wrote to Levy just before the teacher’s death.
“I learned more than Latin and English from you,” Sowlati wrote Levy. “I learned about myself, the world, the challenges that confront all of us, and the need to retain moral competency in a world that seems to lack compassion and honor. . . . Wherever life takes me, I always remember your lessons.”
Levy is survived by his cousin Loretta Hoffman of Moonachie, N.J., and many students and friends.
A memorial service will be held Feb. 24 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. in the Carlson Family Theatre at Viewpoint School, 23620 Mulholland Highway, Calabasas, CA 91302. Memorial donations may be made to the Dr. William Turner Levy Fund for the Humanities at Viewpoint School.