Alfred Levy, a retired gardener who worked for the city Department of Recreation and Parks for more than 30 years and shared his love of plants with the elderly and less fortunate, died in his sleep March 7 at Hillhaven Assisted Living, Nursing, and Rehabilitation Center in Adelphi. He was 80, and formerly a longtime Northwest Baltimore resident.
The son of Polish immigrant parents, Mr. Levy was born in Baltimore and raised in an apartment above his parents' east-side grocery store at Dallas and Hoffman streets. He left school as a 9-year-old and went to work in the family store.
"He never learned to read because he was dyslexic, but of course they didn't know that in those days," said his son Herb Cooper-Levy of Alexandria, Va.
Mr. Levy joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and served in the Army during World War II, based in Colorado.
After the war, he returned to Baltimore and became a factory worker at Locke Insulator Co. and Continental Can Co., before taking a job with the city parks department in 1953.
He spent most of his career grooming the grounds of the city's Cylburn Arboretum, a 207-acre nature and wildflower preserve that also includes the antebellum mansion once owned by Jesse Tyson, a wealthy 19th-century Baltimore industrialist. Mr. Levy retired in 1987.
Because he was unable to read, Mr. Levy did not drive and commuted to and from work by bus.
"He'd get up at 3:30 a.m., have his coffee, and then would walk to the bus stop where he caught the No. 19. The end of the line was at Sinai Hospital and then he'd have to walk a mile and a half to Cylburn, getting there every day at 6:30 a.m. He said he liked to be there at that hour to `see the park wake up,'" Mr. Cooper-Levy said.
"Even on snow days, when everyone was calling in saying they couldn't make it, he was there to take their calls. They used to joke that Levy got to work on his dogsled," his son said
"He was a genuine person - plain and simple. He came to work without fail, even when he was sick," said Gerard J. Moudry, retired chief horticulturist at Cylburn. "And he knew his way around plants. People like Al Levy made it worthwhile coming to work."
After working all day maintaining the park's grounds, Mr. Levy returned to his home on Labyrinth Road and, at a time of day when most people are seeking a respite from their labors, he would begin working - as a volunteer.
"He did odd jobs around the neighborhood for the elderly or those who were sick and unable to take care of their yards," said Mr. Cooper-Levy. "He'd cut grass, trim bushes and hedges, and never charged anybody. He'd take tulip bulbs from Cylburn that were being thrown out and bring them home and plant them in their yards so they would have pretty flowers to look at."
He added: "He was a wonderful example of how people should be treated. In the Jewish religion, doing a kindness for those who can't return it is the ultimate kindness."
A stocky man who was seldom without a smile, Mr. Levy moved several years ago to a nearby retirement home. Noticing that it was in need of a garden, he took plant cuttings from his former home and started a garden for residents and visitors.
"He was the retirement home's unpaid gardener," Mr. Cooper-Levy said. "And when the young couple that bought his home said they didn't have time to care for his roses, he'd walk down there once a week from the retirement home and work in his old garden, making sure they were properly taken care of."
The one constant and frustrating challenge in Mr. Levy's life was his inability to learn to read.
"He tried taking night classes at Western High School to learn how to read, but he was never able to. This caused a sense of inferiority because he assumed everyone else was smarter because they could read," his son said. "However, he paid attention to TV and radio broadcasts, which gave him a sense of what was going on and an understanding of events."
In addition to gardening, Mr. Levy was a movie fan and liked listening to Big Band-era music from the 1930s and 1940s.
Mr. Levy's wife of 51 years, the former Vivian Rose Woolf, died in 1999.
Mr. Levy was proud of his sons Herb and Edward Lawrence Levy of Silver Spring, who both hold master's degrees, and of his four grandchildren who have or are working on bachelor's degrees. He is also survived by a brother, Leon Levy of Baltimore.
Services were Wednesday.