The Levines and Us

In a city that's just discovering how to give deeply, Leon and Sandra Levine are showing the way

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

Leon and Sandra Levine.

This is what leaps to mind: the couple that has supported too many charities to count, using the wealth they earned from a lifetime of doing business with everyday folks to come to the rescue of the homeless and hungry. What a lovely story.

But the story of the Levines is lovelier still because it isn't just about them or the thousands of people who have been touched by their benevolence. It's about us - a community that has embraced the delicious improbability of these two big-hearted souls earning our affection.
Those around here who have been tending to the needs of the desperate for a while can be forgiven for wondering, "Leon and Sandra have been cutting us checks for years, why all the fuss now?" It's true: from Levine Museum of the New South in uptown to Levine Scholars at UNC-Charlotte on the north side, their imprint is everywhere, including on the sides of a lot of buildings. The city's big interfaith Thanksgiving worship service was at Temple Israel on the south side. Afterward, hundreds of people of different faiths, cultures, and colors gathered for fellowship and cookies - in the Leon and Sandra Levine Social Hall. A fairly mundane luncheon for Freedom School, a summer reading program for at-risk kids, erupted in applause with the announcement that the Levines were giving $300,000 to open more sites. The Leon Levine Foundation gave away more than $10 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008. Tom Lawrence, the foundation's executive director, says there will be a "substantial increase" when the 2009 numbers are added up.

Michael Rose, president of the Carolinas HealthCare Foundation, had an experience typical of the many who have been beneficiaries of the Levines' giving. Their initial gift of $10 million launched Levine Children's Hospital, and their $5 million gift on the back end kick-started an endowment. Leon and Sandra are a team, a package deal, Rose says. They make their giving decisions together, and they raised their three children (Howard, Lori, and Amy) to give to their favorite causes, too. Rose says the Levines are more personable than most anyone he deals with, always asking about his family or health before getting down to business. But when it comes time to get to the bottom line, they ask enough questions to make sure they're getting good value, a philosophy driven by Leon, a guy from Rockingham who founded the Family Dollar empire—now up to 6,600 stores in forty-four states and run by the Levines' son, Howard. The Levines are softies, for sure. Rose recalls the time they wrote a $1,000 check to the hospital—to buy stuffed bears for the kids.

There's something different about the Levines, Rose says, something that sets them apart. There was the night a security guard at the children's hospital construction site off South Kings Drive called Rose to report a fellow in a Rolls-Royce nosing around. The fellow in the Rolls told the guard it's OK, it was his hospital and he just wanted to see how things were progressing. Rose told the guard that, for sure, the fellow in the Rolls is OK.

Late in 2009 is when the rest of us began learning what Rose already knew, when the nature of our relationship with them began to change as they seemingly rode to the rescue each day. With each gift—the $1 million to help charities rocked by the United Way scandal was the one that most powerfully captured the civic imagination—they became more than huge givers. More than a couple whose name echoes sweetly in the halls of nonprofits rescued from the brink.

By giving at the moment of our greatest need, the Levines have come to personify what we all wish we could be if we had their bank account. I mean, who wouldn't want to be them, picking up the paper each morning, reading about a good cause in trouble, and then getting to do something about it? They have given real-life form to the angel that lives inside us, which becomes even cooler because their biography runs counter to the prevailing culture around here.

In a city that craves the fanciness of Neiman Marcus, the Levines have spent a lifetime keeping small towns and the other side of town in shaving cream and motor oil. 

In a city that expects its movers and shakers to see and be seen, the Levines don't even live among us full time. You might catch them in Myrtle Beach or Boca Raton, where they spend part of the year, before you'll spot them at the City Club uptown. That we embrace them as we do speaks to the influence they have had, and the respect they have earned.

And maybe coolest of all: the Levines, who have done so much for this city of churches, are Jewish.

Don't you get it?

This is the beauty of the story.

We appreciate the Levines in a way that goes deeper than saying thanks for a big check. We appreciate the staying power of their generosity, that their giving isn't one and done.  And we appreciate that their benevolence springs from a story so delightfully different from other Charlotte stories: their small-town roots, discount determination, and Jewish faith.

The last word goes to a Presbyterian preacher.

The Rev. Thomas Currie, dean of the Union-Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Charlotte, doesn't know the Levines personally. But like so many others, he has taken them to heart in a way that makes them feel like friends and good neighbors.

"I would suspect that operating a store successfully in small towns teaches one, among other things, to value local communities, not in the abstract but in the daily appreciation of what it takes to make a community a livable place," Currie says. "The Levines obviously have both learned and shared that lesson."

But for Currie, the best part of the story is that their faith and charity teach us about our faith, and the need to express it through charity.
"Whatever the rest of us know about generosity we have learned from their story," Currie says, celebrating the roots of their Jewish giving. "But not just generosity. The Levines' giving is a way of caring for the neighbor, and inspires the rest of us to go and do likewise."

Ken Garfield is director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church. His last article for this magazine was "All That Remains," profiles of nine Holocaust survivors in the November 2009 issue.

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