By Deb Silverthorn
For more than a half-century, most of the country has “loved it at Levitz” and Friday, June 12, Leon Jerome Levitz, the co-founder of Levitz Furniture and principal behind the musical prose, will turn 100 years young.
“The way to live to 100? I never smoked, drank and I’ve always exercised,” said Leon, who, married to Ruth Kauffman and Margaret “Bibi” Davison, is the father of Gary and Sarah, all four of blessed memory: daughter Linda and son John, grandfather of Michael (Mickey), Lisa (Mickey), Laura, Daniel (Julia), Ashley (Kyle), Ryan, Christian, and Connor and great-grandfather of Alex, Savannah, Sierra, Sydney, Jacob, Joshua, Matthew, Madison, Logan, and Cora.
“Travel has been my only vice and I’ve never led a sedentary life.”
Born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the son of Sarah and Richard and brother to Ralph, Sam, Razelle, Blossom, Sidney, and Adele, all of blessed memory, Leon said, “Shabbos was a big deal, my mother was an amazing cook (she made the best matzah balls) and it was meaningful.”
Because there was no Hebrew school nearby, Leon left Lebanon at age 11.
“I went to the Baltimore Yeshiva for two years, where we studied Chumash by day and English at night,” he said. “It was important to my mother that we had religion — she cleaned for Passover with the feathers from Europe and learning was No. 1. I was back home for my bar mitzvah and I can still hum my Torah portion and hear it in my head.”
“My Grandpa has always been a stand-up Jew who taught me to be proud of my heritage,” said Daniel, a Los Angeles-based real estate entrepreneur. “Knowing how he grew up, and how important Judaism is to him, not as much his observance, but his pride, is something I absolutely respect.”
Leon’s independent streak continued when he got his pilot’s license at 15.
“I lied about my age. I scrimped because it was the Depression and there was no money. Somehow for flying, I found money,” said Leon, whose love of flying began as an awarded model airplane enthusiast.
“I’ve piloted from Pottstown to Mexico City and across country. As John Gillespie Magee, Jr. wrote, ‘Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.’”
A 1936 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Leon opened his first store at 433 High St. in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, with his brother Ralph and a $10,000 credit line by their father — a worthwhile investment as the store’s size tripled in three years. The senior Levitz extended the credit so his sons could follow in his footsteps — he had opened RB Levitz General Store, which sold furniture and appliances, at just 18 years old and newly arrived from Lithuania.
In 1956, Leon followed his brother Sam to Tucson, where after a weekend warehouse sale, with inventory open to the public, the brothers sold more in one month than in the previous year, and thus the warehouse concept was born.
“In the early days, display wasn’t a priority and when Ralph and I opened the first Levitz Warehouse Furniture Showroom, in Allentown in 1963, it was a resounding success,” said Leon. “Today, most stores have followed our lead, bringing the customer to the supply.”
In 1968 the company went public, opening at $15 per share, worth almost seven times that in just weeks. With close to 70 stores open by 1972, Ralph ran the East Coast while Leon remained in the West before retiring as president in 1980.
Putting off retirement
Just six years into retirement, Leon re-entered the market with the purchase of Dallas/Fort Worth locations of RB Furniture.
“I bought in with my son Gary and nephew Philip and we were back in business,” he said. “We took those five stores, we called them RoomStore, built them up and sold to Heilig-Meyers. My next stop, with grandson Michael, was to buy in to the Ashley Furniture HomeStores, where we did $1 million our first month open in Mesquite.”
Leon Levitz’s legacy is firm with his grandson Michael as president of Ashley Furniture HomeStores in North Texas, daughter-in-law Shelley as CFO, and a number of grandchildren following suit, the prospect of a fourth generation intent.
“I grew up in this business. When you know what to do, and something has always been part of your life, every day is enjoyable. I learned how to be successful from the best in the industry — but mostly from my pop,” said Michael, who entered the family industry at 14.
“The furniture business has always held Leon Levitz in high regard for his innovation of the industry,” said Michael, noting his accomplishments were recognized last year, with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Arizona Home Furnishings Representatives Association.
A former chair of the regional United Jewish Appeal, Leon raised more than $60,000 in war bonds during World War II. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, Pottstown’s Congregation Hesed Shel Emes and Phoenix’s Congregation Har Zion. He traveled to Israel three times, once to honor the memory of his mother with the donation of an emergency room at Hadassah Hospital.
Leon has been on numerous safaris to Africa, and to most of the 50 United States, Asia, Australia and much of Europe.
He’s enjoyed the Indy 500, Dallas Cowboys football, Mavericks basketball — and picking apples in the orchards near Seattle. His favorite meal is a bowl of Deli News’ Chicken HodgePodge soup and a corned beef on rye and half-done pickles — a simple, yet complex, man.
“Grandpa’s always been a sharp dresser and he lives healthy and he’s passed that on,” said Daniel, who lost close to 60 pounds while living with his grandfather a few years ago.
“I’ve learned so much and I’m even more so astonished and proud. Dad doesn’t have a ‘bucket list’ because he’s done it all,” said daughter Linda, a Venice Beach, California, resident who in the last two years has made the Dallas area her part-time home. “Being a child of the depression, he’s lived an outlook of tenacity and absolute positivity. He’s lived through tough times and never given up.”
Blowing out the candles with “Pop” will be Madison, who will turn 7.
“I love celebrating our birthday together because it’s more fun. We both like Subway and going to Pop’s house in Miami and the best part of Pop turning 100 is that he’s alive,” she said.
“I think when he was a little boy there were no plates or silverware or plastic cups or stuffed animals or big grocery stores. I know that God was here when Pop was born, and He will still be here in 100 years — that’s the only thing that I think isn’t different.”
“In the almost 80 years I’ve been in business, a lot has changed but much is the same,” said Leon, who still owns eight area stores. “My father had a sign up that said ‘The customer is always right.’ That’s still how I do business — how we do business — and, from $10,000 in our first few months to $10 million in one month, it’s the only way.”
One hundred years after his birth, and for years to come, many will hear the name Levitz and smile at the memory of the jingle — always loving Levitz.