Jack L. Levin, 88, ad agency partner and state ACLU founder, president

January 27, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Jack L. Levin, a founder and later president of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union who devoted his life to civil libertarianism and fighting prejudice, died Thursday of renal failure at Sinai Hospital. He was 88.

Until his death, Mr. Levin remained managing partner of Shecter & Levin, a Baltimore advertising agency that he had joined in the mid-1930s and that had been founded by his brother-in-law years earlier.

For the past 11 years, the former longtime resident of the Cheswolde section of Baltimore operated the agency, formerly on North Charles Street, from his home in the North Oaks retirement community in Pikesville.

A prolific writer, his work for years was a staple of the op-ed pages of The Sun and The Evening Sun.

In a 1984 interview with the Jewish Historical Society, Mr. Levin explained his lifelong activism, which included being a charter member of the Maryland chapter of the ACLU and serving with the American Jewish Congress.

"It happened because I've always been involved in social action of one kind or another since the early '30s. I was premature-everything. I was a premature anti-fascist in the early '30s," Mr. Levin said. "I organized rallies down here at Pratt Street when we were protesting the visit by the Nazi battleship, the Emden, which was manned by pink-cheeked young sailors who were guests of Roland Park people here. ... This was the kind of thing that was going on in those days.

"Then later on I became prematurely sympathetic with the people who were fighting for the freedom and independence of Israel ... and I even supported the badly misunderstood Irgun, who were freedom fighters," he said.

Pugnacious and determined, Mr. Levin never abandoned his lifelong activism for civil rights and civil liberties.

He never lost the spirit of the 1930s when he vigorously fought for the passage of the Social Security Act at a time when critics branded its supporters as left-wingers, radicals and communists.

"He was a powerful force in our community and over his lifetime was a fearless, outspoken champion of civil rights, Israel and the underdog," said U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. "I was fortunate to have a close friendship with him and benefited from his wise counsel and advice."

Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the ACLU, remembered Mr. Levin as firm in his convictions for the union.

"Jack was uncompromising in his belief that civil liberties represent the best of the American dream and that we must do all we can to defend them," Ms. Goering said.

"As he once said of the ACLU, `We are what America is all about. We are what the flags, drums, bugles and parades symbolize. We protect what other Americans have fought and died for. When patriots get goose bumps singing `God Bless America,' they should know they're singing about civil liberties,'" Ms. Goering said.

William H. Engelman, a Baltimore attorney and Mr. Levin's friend of 50 years, said the activist left an indelible impression on him.

"Like the old Reader's Digest feature, he was a most unforgettable character," Mr. Engelman said. "Jack was the conscience of the community. He had guts and was not timid about speaking out. He always had young ideas and was on top of things."

Mal Sherman, a real estate consultant who participated in the battle for open housing laws in the 1960s, had been an ally of Mr. Levin's for years.

He recalled in 1967 when Mr. Levin established Business Executives Move For Vietnam Peace, a nationwide organization.

"We set up tables in Lafayette Park opposite the White House and fasted for three days. We took the money that we would have spent on food and took out anti-war ads in such national papers as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times," he said.

Born and raised on North Smallwood Street, Mr. Levin was a 1928 City College graduate and earned his bachelor's degree at night from the Johns Hopkins University.

"He was an angry man who had the ability to sublimate and re-channel his rage into creative directions," said Alan Shecter, a nephew who lives in Pikesville.

The nephew also recalled a lighter side to his uncle, remembering him standing on his head while playing a harmonica and shaking a castanet. He also recalled a warm man who had a good sense of humor and an ear for a good story.

But above all else, friends recall Mr. Levin's commitment to people in hardship.

"What drove him was his uneasiness at the thought that someone else might be uncomfortable," said Sidney Hollander Jr., whose father, a noted Baltimore social activist and philanthropist, served as a role model for Mr. Levin.

Mr. Levin was married to Esther Shecter, who died in 1997.

Services will be at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Sol Levinson & Sons, 8900 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

He is survived by a son, David J. Levin of Reisterstown; a sister, Beatrice Straw of Baltimore; two grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

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