Thoughts on Lawrence Levine

Submitted January 12, 2007, 12:27 PM

Grace Palladino/ Comments at AHA Memorial
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I met Larry Levine before he was a genius. In fact, in the summer of 1982, I knew him first as Cornelia’s husband. She and I were desk mates at the Library of Congress, where I was writing my dissertation, probably the luckiest break I ever got there. Because Cornelia is one of the most generous, caring, and forthright people around. But who knew that the Larry she spoke of was “the” Lawrence W. Levine, author of Black Culture and Black Consciousness, the only academic book that had stirred student interest when I was a teaching assistant in black history? I didn’t make the connection until she invited me over for dinner – and then I was intimidated to the core at the thought of actually dining with such an esteemed professor. But talk about wasted anxiety. Here I was quaking in my boots, expecting to meet a duly pompous member of the “the bald head, bow-tied brigade.” [Well that’s what the profession looked like at the time]. Instead I met an amazing cross between Richard Hofstadter and Mel Brooks, who looked like a hippy, sounded like New York, and challenged everything I thought I knew about the profession. Because Lawrence W. Levine was not only a learned professor – he was stand up comedian with a quality act, who could make you think while he made you laugh and who made every encounter an event. With Larry, there was no pretense, no hierarchy, no standing on ceremony – but there was always intense conversation, very good vodka, and jokes galore. There was also an extraordinary generosity of spirit that I don’t expect to encounter again. I can remember how flattered I was, early on, that he took me and my work seriously. But that was before I understood that Larry was always one of “us” and never one of “them.” He really was the democratic spirit brought to life, open to different points of view, totally frank in his assessments, and interested solely in what you brought to the table. And I can tell you, as someone with only the most tenuous academic connections, he was like a breath of fresh air, especially at a meeting like this. I still find it unbearably sad that I won’t be running into him at the book exhibit – there was nothing like his enthusiastic greeting, or his willingness to introduce you around and include you in the conversation. Larry was a star in the best sense of the term, he never coasted, he never preened, he never bored and he never lost his spirit, even when he knew time was up. When I visited Larry and Cornelia last spring I wasn’t at all sure what to expect – cancer is a very cruel way to go. But even though he had lost his hair, and much of his voice, and was dangerously thin and weak, he was still making me laugh and still making me think – and as the three of us watched the sun set – only two of us sipping vodka, alas, I felt very grateful for all the good times we’d enjoyed – and that afternoon was certainly one of them. So while I wasn’t Larry’s student, and I wasn’t his colleague, I was lucky enough to be his friend. And tonight I intend to lift a glass in his honor, and celebrate the scholarship, the laughter, and the generous spirit that made Larry Levine a star. I also intend to laugh – a lot. Because whatever else Larry was, gifted scholar, generous teacher, loving father and husband, and all-round decent human being, Larry was also fun to be with, and that’s what I think I’ll miss most of all.

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