Sheldon Leavitt

by | Oct 27, 2022 | Obituaries

Norfolk—Sheldon Joseph Leavitt, longtime resident of Norfolk, Virginia, originally from Chicago, Illinois, died Tuesday October 11, two days after his 100th birthday party.

He is survived by three of his four children, Charles Hecht-Leavitt, Jonathan Leavitt, and Shirra Leavitt; his four grandchildren Lily and Zachary Hecht-Leavitt, and Anna and Nathaniel Kahn-Leavitt; and four great-grandchildren Ari, Sam, and Josie Singer-Leavitt, and Talia Leavitt-Watson.

If we were allowed to choose the year of our birth, it would take a strong sense of courage and adventure to pick 1922. It helps to be born into a good family, not necessarily one found in a blue book or social register, but where parents like Charles and Sadie Leavitt love their children, deal fairly with each other, and encourage an optimistic expectation that enterprises will succeed. By all reports, the early years were idyllic. It was the roaring 20s in Chicago. Though not yet 30 years old, Sheldon’s father had built a lucrative construction business, was well on his way to millionaire status, and sometimes let young Sheldon operate the crane. Sheldon remembered carefree weekends at the beach and watching parades of Civil War veterans.

They were going to need that optimism because by age eight, in 1930, it came to a crashing halt when the family lost everything in a bank failure. It left a deep impression. For two or three years that were formative for young Sheldon, he learned what it felt like to have to walk along a streetcar line, unable to ride because he didn’t have even a penny for the fare. They squeaked by on creative ideas for odd jobs and favors from relatives, until his father found a government position near Washington, DC. He rose quickly in the Civil Service and the family was back on its feet. Sheldon stayed in Chicago to finish high school, living with his aunts rather than moving to a new school in Maryland with his sister Harriet.

People find different ways to make their way in the world, according to their personalities. Some believe in knowing everybody, some in fighting their way to the top, and some try to charm or sell to get ahead. For Sheldon it was diligence in school, which came naturally to him, though there were no great scholars in his family tree. “When they gave me a test with 10 questions on it,” he said, “I naively assumed that you had to get all 10 right. Nobody told me to get one or two wrong. What would be the point of that?” It’s no exaggeration to say that he never got an “A.” Only A-plus would do, and this little trick made him salutatorian of Crane Tech with its thousands of students, and valedictorian of the University of Illinois with its tens of thousands. His college roommate and childhood friend Sid Epstein was salutatorian. Sheldon was the first member of his family ever to go to college.

There was no question what came after graduation. They’ve come to be called “the Greatest Generation,” but as he put it, “You didn’t have a choice! You were going! We read the news, and saw that these things weren’t going to end without us personally going over there to fight it out.” December brought Pearl Harbor. He entered the Navy’s Officer Candidate School, where once again he was valedictorian, and therefore held back a year to teach rather than serve aboard ship. Wanting to see action, he was disappointed, but ultimately did serve as gunnery officer aboard the USS Maryland and South Dakota. After the surrender, he was transferred to the flagship battleship Missouri where, under Truman’s command, they forestalled the invasion of Turkey while Russian armies massed on its borders. He stayed in the Navy reserve until retirement, attaining the rank of Commander. He looked forward to his annual two weeks of reserve duty with his Seabee battalion, which, among other public works projects, built a demonstration fallout shelter in Norfolk’s City Park.

After the war, he settled in Norfolk, where his parents had moved when his father was made director of housing construction for the Navy. Sheldon systematically met the local Jewish girls and settled on a favorite named Marian Adele Cogen. In the process, he also formed lifelong friendships with young men his age, such as Dan Goldman and Paul Tavss. Paul Tavss once said that Sheldon was the first man whose friendship he considered deep enough to be called love. When Dan Goldman’s health declined later in life, Sheldon continued to visit him regularly.

Marian was cheerful, carefree, and loved good humor. There is scarcely a picture from her childhood in which she is not giggling. Where Sheldon had been the valedictorian, Marian had been the joke columnist. Sheldon’s wise grandmother Anna met Marian and declared, in Yiddish, “Diese madel ist fur ihr.” (This girl is for you).

Legend has it that Marian initially turned down his proposal, saying, “You don’t know the real me,” and Sheldon went back to Chicago to work with his roommate Sid Epstein’s family firm as a structural engineer. He decided to sit for the architectural exam without having gone to architecture school. There is no need to ask whether he passed it. But Marian turned up in Chicago the following year as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. The two of them got together and were married on New Year’s Day, 1952. It was the only day he could take off without missing work.

To start a family, they left Chicago and settled back in Norfolk, where he established an architecture practice. They took dance lessons and excelled at it. When they took to the floor at the Harbor Club, other couples would stand back and form a circle to watch them jitterbug. In due course, they had four children, Charles, Jonathan, David, and Shirra, in an ultra-modern home with grandparents living next door. Sheldon loved his family, but as a father his love took the form of making sure they would never see the financial hardships he experienced as a child, and showing them how to do concrete, useful things: how to ride a bicycle, how to hit the bull’s eye, how to hold a pencil, how to navigate a boat by compass, how to do longhand multiplication and division, and literally how to tell good concrete from bad. He also taught science concepts far beyond the weak curriculum of the day. In the era of preparedness for nuclear war, he brought home a Geiger counter to demonstrate radiation. He demonstrated atmospheric pressure by heating water in an ordinary metal can and made up exercises in number systems other than Base Ten.

Architecture and engineering were demanding work, but he was good at it. Early on, he designed a building with Walter Gropius as the lead architect, and lived in Massachusetts as their houseguest while working in Gropius’ office. After two months, Gropius told him that he now knew everything he needed and it was time for him to go forth on his own. Some 60 years later, his papers and drawings went to the Virginia State archives as examples of what is now called mid-century modern architecture in Virginia.

High interest rates in the 1970s forced the profession to change, and he adapted by focusing on forensic work rather than new buildings. It proved to be a good decision and he continued working well after the normal retirement age. By 88, he didn’t always work weekends, and at 95, he finally closed the office. As for hobbies, he had never been interested in golf, but he remained a crack shot with a pistol, and could put a whole magazine through the bull’s-eye at 50 feet, the limit of the Bob’s Gun Shop shooting range, to the bafflement of younger onlookers who were initially amused when this quaint-looking old man modified the standard targets by placing a smaller sticker in the center. He could easily shoot the same at 75 feet when he went to a longer range. In the Navy, there had been a marksmanship test, and though it didn’t have a valedictorian, nobody told him it was OK to miss a few shots.

So, what timeless wisdom does a person come to appreciate in a hundred years? Sheldon used to say that life is like an ice cream cone, melting in your hands on a hot summer day. You can’t just stand there; you have to eat it before it melts! He actually did eat half of a Klondike bar each day, and made it look like a sacrament. He worked with unrelenting diligence into extreme old age. Not so hard as to develop stress-related illnesses or even to need a stiff drink, but with consistent follow-through. He was not especially materialistic. He used one stapler for at least 70 years and wrote with ordinary wooden pencils. He would rather leave money in the bank than buy a new car or even new shoes. He bought some fine things for Marian, but for himself it was always the discount brand. He was more satisfied with a sandwich from Hardee’s than a gourmet French or Italian dinner. And he was never known to over-eat. Throughout his life he still fit into his uniform from World War II. He was proud to have served his country but had few “war stories” to tell. He had literally been too busy doing ballistic calculations to notice the incoming Kamikazes.

He did not believe that success is the key to happiness, but rather that happiness is the key to success. He lived through turbulent and difficult times, and suffered plenty of setbacks and tragedies; not just the Great Depression and World War II, but the tragic death of his son David at age 17. There were high interest rates in the 1970s that wiped out his building development business. But he didn’t dwell on setbacks. The energy another person might have spent worrying why the race is not always to the swiftest, nor yet riches to men of understanding, he spent ticking items off his list of things “to do.” And by age 99, he had actually forgotten many of the worst events one would rather not remember. He woke up every morning delighted that a wonderful day lay ahead. As far as he was concerned, 1922 was the perfect year to be born, and he made it so.

A graveside memorial service took place at Forest Lawn Cemetery.