Resilience and joy: A son’s journey inspires a mother’s gift

Senior Photo of Larry Levitz '76 in Union Yearbook

Mrs. Jeanne Levitz made the decision shortly after her son Larry’s death in 2016 to found a scholarship in his honor at Union. A member of the Class of 1976, Larry was the youngest of Jeanne’s three children – seven years younger than his sister Barbara, and nine years younger than his brother Gerald. The Larry E. Levitz ’76 Memorial Endowed Scholarship in History provides one student who is majoring in history and has a great need for financial assistance with a $10,000 annual scholarship.

Instead of following Gerald and Barbara to Cornell University, Larry attended Union.

“As a large institution, Cornell just wasn’t the right school for Larry, and he ended up selecting Union. It was the right move…a wonderful move. He matured there. He went there as a boy and returned as a man.”

Larry’s journey at Union seemed to start the way any student’s journey would, but his pre-enrollment medical checkup had revealed that he had end-stage kidney disease. Larry had not been feeling well, but the family had no idea that they were facing something so serious.

“The disease had likely been progressing for a few years, but there was never a definitive answer regarding its cause or origin, and it was a shock to all of us,” Jeanne said.

“Larry shared a room at Union, and I had to rent a refrigerator because he couldn’t eat foods with salt, and that eliminated the campus cafeteria for him. I bought him a two-burner plug-in stove,” she continued. “It was regarded as a safety hazard, but after I pleaded, Union finally gave us the okay. I actually prepared and sealed most of his meals and shipped them on dry ice. He could then boil water to cook up his noodles. None of this was easy for him, but he persevered and graduated cum laude.”

“In fact, when we went to Larry’s graduation, his father and I almost fell out of our chairs, because Larry never told us that he would be graduating cum laude,” she said. “We were so proud that he had accomplished at that level given how sick he was.”

Larry made the best of his time at Union. He played the trumpet and was in the band, according to his mother, and also played in the orchestra for the show “Hair.”

“He was able to make rehearsals. The illness caused him to lose about 75% of his kidney function, but Larry still had a remarkable experience at Union,” Jeanne recalled. “He made very good friends there, and they kept up with each other for years after graduation.”

From the beginning, Larry was a reader and a lover of history.

“When he was five or six years old, he came into the kitchen and told me something quite remarkable, and I asked, ‘How did you know that?’” Jeanne said. “He replied, ‘I read it in the World Book Encyclopedia.’ I had no idea he was reading an encyclopedia written at a high school reading level.”

“Around the same time, Larry spotted a book series on American history for sale in our local grocery store. He was still young enough that he was riding in the top part of the grocery cart,” she continued. “I ended up buying the books with the caveat that they’d be for his birthday. I purchased those he had missed in the series and then bought the subsequent ones as they were released, and months later, he was fine that he had already received his birthday present.”

Eventually, he would give the series of books to his nieces.

Larry Levitz in suit facing camera

Larry went on to have a very successful career in public finance, working for the City of New York, Moody’s, Fitch Ratings and MBIA, where he was a managing director. He also earned two graduate degrees – his first from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, and his second, an M.B.A., from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Amidst these undertakings, Larry became an early kidney transplant recipient at the age of 24. Kidney transplants had just begun to be available.

“Larry was home from the University of Texas over the winter break and was very weak. He had learned of an innovative surgeon who was performing transplants at Downstate Medical. He was having dialysis three times a week, and it didn’t look like he’d be able to meet with the surgeon, but a chance change in scheduling allowed Larry to meet with the doctor on a Saturday,” Jeanne said. “They talked for two hours about his candidacy for a transplant, and Larry decided to go forward. The following Tuesday we got a call that a kidney had been identified for him. Not knowing if it was a match, we had ten minutes to make a decision. Larry said he would take it!”

The donor’s kidney ultimately served Larry for 23 years. He went on to marry and have a family of his own.

Jeanne said fondly of her daughter-in-law, “Helen and Larry met at a Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park and became good friends. Friendship blossomed into love, and after four years, they married.”

When Larry’s donated kidney began to fail, his brother offered him a kidney. It was only a 50% match, but it functioned for Larry for 15 years. Barbara, his sister, also offered to be a donor, but the physicians believed hers would not serve him as long.

“Larry – ‘my adored ‘baby brother’ – was upbeat, incredibly funny, highly talented and respected, full of life and overall a great person,” Barbara observed. “The fact that he rarely talked about his ill health or complained was noted by many. Some colleagues at his memorial service, which was attended by hundreds of friends and colleagues, indicated that they had not even known that he had kidney disease or was a transplant recipient. Larry’s courage, high spirits, deep engagement in life and keen concern for the well-being of our society and our planet characterized him his entire life. I miss him everyday, but am incredibly proud of the life he lived so fully and well.”

“Larry died of cancer and heart failure, not kidney disease. When he did pass away, it was a terrible shock because I didn’t realize his health had deteriorated so much,” Jeanne said. “He had been shielding me from that.”

At Larry’s funeral, his son Benjamin spoke fondly of his father, noting that they couldn’t possibly find any more space in their home for books or book shelves, because their home was already wall-to-wall books.

“Larry read every night when he returned from work in the evening. He loved reading and history,” Jeanne recalled. “It must have been in his genes because his father was a voracious reader too – anything about American history, its presidents, etc. Both of them loved reading those history books.”

According to Barbara, Larry was also an “exercise maniac – swimming, running, cycling. He credited his ability to function at such a high level to his commitment to exercise. Before his transplant, when he was weak from dialysis, he swam a half mile or more daily. When he was working on Wall Street, he would get up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym before commuting into Manhattan. Larry was also a great dad who was very involved with his sons. They spent every summer as a family in a remote part of Vermont, living in a rustic cabin on a lake and enjoying the simple pleasures.”

“Union gave Larry the firm basis that he needed. It all started there. That’s why I made this gift. I wanted to help someone with financial need have the wonderful experience at Union that he did.” Jeanne continued. “Union was where his growth happened, where he matured. Union was where his heart was, and I want to help other students who are interested in history and reading.”

Barbara added, “Larry would have been so pleased with the scholarship our mother established in his honor. As the grandchildren of immigrants and the children of Depression-era parents, we were acutely aware of the great gift a first-rate education represents.”

Jeanne Levitz is 98 years old, by the way. “My eyes, ears and feet are old, but my brain and spirit are young!” she declared.

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