The last time I saw Norman Leventhal, a few years ago, we were both walking on the corridor that stretches across the top of Fenway Park.
He spied me, stopped and from a stoop stood straight up and said, “Do you still love your wife?”
He was about 94 and had picked up, without a moment’s hesitation, the last existential questions we had asked each other years before, in the Boston Public Library, playing out our lives, his far more consequential than mine.
In every conversation I had with Norman Leventhal, his wife, Muriel, was never far from the surface.
Norman built some of the great buildings in Boston, and I would put Rowes Wharf right up there with the signature structures of any place in any city. But Norman would be the first guy to tell you the best thing he ever built was his relationship with Muriel. Everything else was secondary.
His love of his kids and the city of Boston aren’t a bad second.
Norman grew up in a Boston, in a Dorchester, that was hard on Jewish kids. The Irish and Italian kids beat Jewish kids up, and the cops, most of them Irish, would grab the Jewish kids, ostensibly to save them, then admonish them for getting themselves in such a situation, as if it were their fault.
Norman told me he negotiated those anti-Semitic straits with difficulty, but he focused on the kids who were good to him, the cops who winked at him, not those who called him names and punched his chest.
You have to understand the limitations Norman Leventhal faced at the time. His father was from Russia. His mother was from Lithuania. They were both Jews and that didn’t add up well at the time.
Norman succeeded, in part, because he was able to, by his sheer decency, melt the sort of institutional anti-Semitism that existed in Boston at the time, and by sheer dint keep his eyes on where he was going.
I have friends, and even a brother, in the construction business and when I ask them why Norman Leventhal did so well they all say the same thing: he insisted on quality work and never said he’d do something he couldn’t.
In how many other businesses or disciplines could you pull that off?
Norman also gave away a huge amount of the money he made.
Describing Norman Leventhal as a Jewish philanthropist is like calling Seamus Heaney an Irish poet. It is accurate and desperately misleading.
Norman Leventhal loved everybody. I remember him telling me about going back to the house in Dorchester that he grew up in. By the time he found it, the tenants were Haitian.
“It was us,” he said.
The immigrants there were no different, aside from pigmentation, than his family.
Norman was very emotional, talking about that.
“We spend so much time talking about how different we are and at the end of the day, really, what’s the difference?”
Spoken like a boy who grew up on Wolcott Street.
The last time I had a long conversation with Norman Leventhal, I asked him, for all his riches, for all his fortune, what did he want?
He didn’t hesitate. He said that every June, he saw a page in the Globe that showed immigrants’ kids from the Boston schools who were the best students.
“Those kids,” Norman Leventhal said, “were me.”
He wanted a Boston where every kid was appreciated for who they were, not where they were from. Not what they looked like.
Norman loved maps. He gave a lot of them to the Boston Public Library, because he never forgot the wonder that they would let a poor immigrant kid like him in.
One day, I was at the library with Norman, and he meandered over to a map and pointed to it and asked, “Do you know where this is?”
I shook my head.
“This is where we want to be,” he said.
I never figured out where Norman meant, but I’m still trying.