- The Passing of Michael Levett, WHF Class of 1969-70The White House Fellows Foundation and Association regrets the passing of Michael Levett of the WHF Class of 1969-70. His life partner Isabel Hill prepared the following words in celebration of his life. Also included below are remembrances from several of Michael’s Classmates and other White House Fellows.
Michael Alan Levett, a colorful political strategist who pioneered many of the most advanced American corporate social responsibility programs and was a leader in private sector-led development initiatives in countries around the globe, died at age 75 on February 22 at George Washington University Hospital of complications from pneumonia.Levett was born and grew up in Los Angeles. As a law student at UCLA, he worked as editor-in-chief of the UCLA Daily Bruin. During the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, he brought reporters from seven college newspapers together to produce a daily paper covering events for tens of thousands of young protesters filling the streets. Later, as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Levett covered minority communities and the growth of the United Farmworkers movement.
Though well-known for his protests against the Vietnam War, in 1969 Levett was selected to become a White House Fellow in the Nixon administration, assigned to work for Secretary of the Interior Walter “Wally” Hickel. Hickel designated Levett to represent him on the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization, which recommended the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, founded on April 29, 1970 on the eve of the first Earth Day. Despite White House opposition to official participation in Earth Day, Levett arranged for a thousand department staffers to take part in campus gatherings around the country.
Following the May 1970 Kent State University killing of four student protestors by the Ohio National Guard, Hickel requested Levett draft a private letter for him to Nixon. The blunt letter began: “I believe this Administration finds itself, today, embracing a philosophy which appears to lack appropriate concern for the attitude of a great mass of Americans – our young people. Addressed either politically or philosophically. I believe we are in error if we set out consciously to alienate those who could be our friends.”
The letter’s leak to the Washington Star was the first open break between Nixon and his cabinet, and the White House immediately attributed the leak to Levett. Nixon resolved that Hickel and Levett would be fired when Kent State blew over. In November, Levett orchestrated an interview for Hickel with CBS’s “60 Minutes” in which Hickel insisted that he would not quit under pressure. Hickel used a Levett phrase, that he would only leave “with an arrow in my heart, not a bullet in my back.” Nixon fired Hickel days later; both Hickel and Levett earned places on Nixon’s enemies list. Levett secured a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University soon thereafter.
Returning to politics in 1971-2, Levett was the campaign co-manager of Republican Pete McCloskey’s anti-war presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire. Later, he co-chaired the California general election campaign for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.
In 1975, Levett joined with investigative reporters Mae Churchill and Dan Noyes to produce an influential and prescient report, “Exploring ways and means of increasing the quality and quantity of investigative journalism.
A passion for social justice was a strong force throughout Levett’s life. In 1976, Levett played a pivotal role as Southern California campaign manager of the “No on 6” campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative, the first statewide anti-gay ballot initiative which would have prohibited gays from being teachers. Levett was instrumental in a come-from-behind million vote margin victory that marked a major moment in gay politics in this country. As the movie Milk about San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk pointed out, the election was won in Southern California, and campaign leadership credited that largely to Levett’s work.
In 1980, Levett brought his prodigious energy and expertise to the private sector. Levett joined LucasFilm as assistant vice president for international licensing, managing products spun off from the Star Wars epic series. In 1983, Levett became vice president of marketing for the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation.
In 1986, Levett shifted to groundbreaking, entrepreneurial work with his business partner Jim Hickman and they pioneered early citizen diplomacy, promoting entertainment, cultural, commercial, and trade ventures in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states. Over the next three years, Hickman and Levett produced concert tours and music festivals across the Soviet Union for such stars as John Denver, Billy Joel, and LaToya Jackson, and signed the first coproducing recording agreements with the Soviets. As Glasnost and Perestroika opened additional doors, Levett signed unprecedented media deals including the first satellite link up between the US and the USSR.
In 1988, Levett created Story First Entertainment under the American-Soviet Film Initiative to produce a documentary titled ”The Super Power Mirror,” about the damaging stereotypes through which the two countries view one another. As Gorbachev lost power, bureaucracies on both sides of the former Iron Curtain impeded the documentary.
In 1992 Levett was recruited to come to Washington as the founding CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, which aimed to inject the perspective of progressive businesses into federal policymaking. He used his combined business and political experience to lead and grow a coalition of 51 socially-minded corporations such as Stride Rite, the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s.
In 1994, Levett became the CEO of Citizen Democracy Corps (CDC), bringing the practical private sector expertise of 7500 businessmen and women who volunteer to develop market economies in the former Soviet Republics throughout Central and Eastern Europe, later expanding to Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. A pioneer in the practice of private sector-led development, Levett brought local firms into international supply chains in order to build local economies in dozens of developing countries ranging from farming in Jamaica, oil and gas operations in Azerbaijan and Angola and interrelated tourist sectors in Nigeria.
In 2004, Levett joined former Premier of the Supreme Soviet and President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev to found the Russian Heritage Highway Foundation, an international effort to encourage private economic development and diversity in European Russia.
In 2010, Levett became a senior director and board vice-chair of CDC, now called Pyxera, continuing to provide strategic advice and devoting increasing time to providing counsel to colleague organizations that shared his vision of entrepreneurial private sector development to benefit developing economies.
He was very proud of his engagement as a Senior Fellow at Babson College’s Lewis Institute for Social Innovation, dedicated to helping people to become changemakers. Citing Levett’s breadth of energy, intellect, curiosity, talent, humor, creativity, and passion for social and political justice, Cheryl Kiser, the Institute’s executive director, called him, “an extraordinary Changemaker and the most positive disruptor I have ever known.”
In recent years, Levett was a highly valued senior associate at the Center on Strategic and International Studies, authoring “Maximizing Development of Local Content Across Industry Sectors in Emerging Markets,” and serving on the CSIS task force on confronting the global forced migration crisis. Levett was also a long-serving board member of Small Enterprise Assistance Funds, where he brokered a partnership with the Refugee Investment Network to support employment for forced migrants.
Wherever he lived, Michael found a basketball court. He delighted in rising at sunrise for a pickup game where he prided his ability to play under the boards with players much younger and taller. He treasured sharing his experiences and mentoring young people. And, as Michael’s colleagues and his vast network of dear friends know well, he brought comedic relief and adventure to everything he did.
Levett was born on March 15, 1944. He is survived by his life partner of fifteen years Isabel Hill, his sister Muriel Schloss of Santa Barbara; his two children Kathryn Beaudry Levett of Portland, Maine and Christopher Beaudry Levett of Washington, DC; granddaughter Charlotte Prescott; Isabel Hill’s daughter, Katherine Kvasnicka, and grandson, Calvin Kvasnicka. His marriages to Patricia Sterne Evans and to Ann Beaudry ended in divorce, and both remained among his closest friends.
Remembrance from Bobbie & Bill Kilberg (both from the WHF Class of 1969-70): Our 1969-70 class of Fellows was the first class to have an overseas trip – which was actually two separate trips, one to the Middle East and one to Europe. Because of State Department concerns about sending some of us to the Middle East given our ethnicity and/or gender, we were assigned to the European trip as were Mike Levett and Pastora San Juan (Cafferty). Throughout the trip, Pastora and Bobbie roomed together as did Mike and Bill. The four of us spent what free time we had on that trip together. We decided to check out East Berlin on our own, using our personal rather than diplomatic passports to spend a few hours in the East. At dinner that night back in West Berlin, we were informed that our adventure was not the secret we thought it had been and that our military hosts were not too happy with us! Our European travel would cement a lifetime of friendship with Pastora and Mike and, for the two of us, love and marriage.
Mike’s passing reminds us of that friendship and how much we miss Pastora, who died some years ago. We just celebrated the 50th reunion of our class, so our memories of that remarkable year – and of all of our extraordinary classmates — are very fresh. We think back not only to our Fellows year but to all the years since and marvel at how much Mike accomplished in his life and how varied were his endeavors. His politics were mainstream liberal; although passionate in his beliefs, he never drifted to extremes. When debating with us or others from our class, Mike was always civil, often humorous, and occasionally insightful. A talented writer, and a natural sales person, he worked in Hollywood, on political campaigns, in international and entrepreneurial organizations, and with NGOs. When Mike worked for Lucas Films, he gave our young children an exciting tour of the Star Wars set and a collection of Star Wars figures. In his moments of political activism, he regaled us with stories of the raw stuff of politics, including the role and importance of “walking around money.” He was an entrepreneur in Russia during the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, he served as a senior executive with the Citizens Democracy Corps (now known as Pyxera Global), an NGO, managing projects in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa, and he has been engaged as a scholar with our friend, Dan Runde, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Dan has published a wonderful eulogy describing Mike’s many good works.
In spite of all of Mike’s public activity, he was a very private person. Recollecting our times together, and the stories we shared, we are surprised at how little we – and others of our Fellows class who also were close friends with Mike — actually know of Mike’s personal life and his family. We know that he was very much in love with Isabel Hill, the woman he spent the last 15 years with. And we know that our dear friend was a man of many talents, committed to societal good, here and abroad, that he was modest and polite, with a wry and delightful sense of humor, and that he will be very much missed by all of us who were fortunate enough to have known him.
Remembrance from Landis Jones (WHF Class of 1969-70): Mike Levett was part of a very diverse class, our class of 1969-70. He was more a prototype of the youth generation of the sixties than most of us. But he was inspired to create, to press moderately, to build bridges in his search for change, from an unfortunate war and a crushing of hope by assassination, demonstrations, and riots. As a Fellow, he was more committed to the task of assisting his mentor, Wally Hickle at Interior than the education program. This probably would have pleased John Gardner, if he had reviewed our class performance. He made an impact on his mentor greater than most Fellows. Over the years, he has been a firm supporter of the WHF program, participating in alumni travel and befriending many in the later classes. He was a joy to have in the class and as a good friend to me and my family for more than half a century. He visited us many times and once when he was working for George Lucas, he spent four hour mesmerizing son just as Star Wars was bursting out. His impact in business and healing the cold war meant that he worked with George H. W. Bush, with Dana Mead as well as having managed the McGovern campaign in Maryland. In contributing deeply, he crossed barriers of age, of race, of politics, of religion to contribute superbly to the country which he critiqued and loved. We loved him in return.
Remembrance from Daniel Runde (a friend of Michael’s): My friend and CSIS colleague, Michael Levett, died in his mid-70s over the weekend. A wonderful man who lived a truly interesting life, I feel cheated out of at least 15 years of friendship, and counsel. Michael, a Californian, grew up in Los Angeles, went to UCLA and was editor of the newspaper there. He worked for the LA Times out of college for several years. He was active in Democratic politics in the late 60s and the 1970s. He volunteered or was paid staff on a number of Democratic and civil rights campaigns in California. Later, he worked for Lucas Films where he was a Vice President, contributing to the first three Stars Wars films (Episodes 4, 5, 6, of course) and the first Indiana Jones film. He knew George Lucas and all of the film stars and had wonderful stories about working with them. He helped developed the toys and commercial products that are associated with those films. Those toys were important totems of my childhood and of the childhoods of millions of other Generation Xers. I was fascinated about his pilgrimages to Bentonville, Arkansas to sell Wal-Mart on the idea of placing Stars Wars toys in each Wal-Mart. He also worked for a brief time for Dino De Laurentis, working on Dune and, I believe, Conan the Barbarian. Given his background, he was kind enough to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with me last September, a real treat.
At CSIS, Michael was a Senior Associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development for the last ten years. I saw or spoke with him at least every two weeks during that time. Given his experience and travel history, he was a constant resource for events and publications on a variety of international development topics. He brought a lot of ideas to the report we did in 2011 on development finance, titled Sharing Risk in a World of Danger and Opportunity. He also helped with a major report, Seizing the Opportunity in Public-Private Partnerships, that same year. In 2013, he was an advisor to a commission we did on the role of the private sector in development. At his instigation, we did a report on the travel, tourism and hospitality sector, Global Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality as a Strategic Sector for Development and Security. He served as an advisor to our task force on reforming and reorganizing U.S. foreign assistance in 2017, and he was a major part of our task force on confronting the global forced migration crisis in 2018, leading fact-finding missions to multiple countries.
I have fond memories travelling with him to New York and Los Angeles various times. He traveled with some of my colleagues to Africa and elsewhere. His report on value chains, Maximizing Development of Local Content across Industry Sectors in Emerging Markets, is still read and is recognized as one of the few papers on this relevant and pressing topic. Offering his time and his talents to CSIS, Michael would provide comedic relief and adventure to everything he did. He took time to shepherd and share his experiences with young professionals at CSIS and throughout DC. He had strong, well-formed views and was wonderful to be around. He had a broad sense of the spiritual and the strong sense of what he thought was right or wrong and acted accordingly. Never far from a joke, Michael was a Mensch, and I am really going to miss him.”
Remembrance from Sharon (Talley) McLin (Wilson Talley’s ex-wife): “What Happens When Opposites Interact: Mike Levett and Wilson Talley“. As Mike wrote after Wilson passed away in 2017, it’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar backgrounds and personalities than his and Wilson’s. Wilson was well-established as an associate professor of Applied Science in the UC Davis College of Engineering, a protégé of Edward Teller, and as conservative as his parents would have expected him to be. Mike had been at UC Berkeley and UCLA followed by UCLA Law (schools considerably more activist than the “ag school” UCD), had been at the 1968 convention in Chicago, had worked for a senator who opposed Vietnam, and clearly seemed headed in a very different direction.
They met at the San Francisco regional finals in the spring of 1969, and I’m sure they considered each other, and everyone else in the room, competitors. When the class of 1969-70 was announced on June 16, Mike had more hair than anyone else in the room (well, more than any other male) and Wilson was easy for our grandkids to find in the photos because he wore black horn-rims – so did Geoff Shepard (but he was taller) and Bill Kilberg (who was hidden behind Nixon in the photo). Those who haven’t seen the State Dining Room photo of the announcement might want to look it up just to see the expression on Mike’s face as he looks at Nixon.
I credit the non-work time the Fellows spent together during the year for the development of Mike and Wilson’s relationship. There were carpools, bus, train and plane trips to places near and far, during which people got to know each other. The two also shared a “different” sense of humor. Toward the end of his tenure as a Fellow, Wilson spent several frantic weeks working for the Ash Council, implementing ideas that eventually became the groundwork for the EPA. Many of his conversations with Mike during the year informed positions taken during that time.
Wilson and I divorced not too long after our return to California, but remained friends and both remarried. One of the blessings the ’69-’70 class gave to those of us who were ex-spouses was to invite us to their 35th and 50th reunion meetings. It was a true joy to see Mike again at both meetings, especially last fall. When we were planning to make that trip, my current husband, who had met Mike only during the reunion 15 years before, asked me if Mike would be there. That gives one some idea of the kind of person he was. We will both miss him.
Remembrance from Jack LeCuyer (WHF Class of 1977-78): My earliest interactions with Mike were just after I became Executive Director of the WHFFA. At each gathering of the WHF for our Annual Leadership Conference, Mike would enter a session late and inevitably pose a very challenging and sometimes irreverent question for the speaker. Mike seemed to be absolutely resolved to counter the conventional wisdom of that time. I soon learned of his experience as a WHF, when he served under Secretary Wally Hickle and was widely accused of being the reason Hickle was fired from his job. However, I got to know a very thoughtful Michael Levett during our WHFFA trip to Vietnam in 2002, when he was joined by 4 veterans of the Vietnam War. We all learned a great deal about ourselves and our stances regarding the war — Michael had been very much opposed — and honored each other for our beliefs , a sentiment that carried over to the WHFFA panel on the Vietnam War in 2015, when we again shared our experiences and thoughts about that troubled time in our nation’s history.
Mike was a champion for those who were denied the rights and benefits of democracy throughout the world. His leadership of the Citizens Democracy Corps and subsequent efforts to bring the fruits of democracy as a basis of U.S. foreign policy to the rest of the world are a standard for us all.
Mike was also a constant supporter of the White House Fellows Program. He ran for membership in the board of directors in 2010, and his ballot statement is worth noting:
“For the last 16 years, I have recruited and sent thousands of Americans (from recent MBAs to corporate CEOs) to volunteer their skills and experiences in developing countries. Their commitment, passion and results have moved me every day. Like so much of my life, that job was shaped mightily by my Fellowship year, but it kept me on the move and often out of the country. I am shifting to a new position in my organization designed to give me time to work with NGO and corporate partners. I have the time to give back a little of what my WHF year contributed to my life, personally and professionally (literally, with two jobs working with former Fellows as Chairmen). I know first-hand what same-class Fellows can do working together and I have seen the contributions of multiple former Fellows working in the same company. I would like to maximize that team candle power at in-house settings and on external opportunities by putting 16 years of experience to work expanding recruitment and matching WHF alums to development opportunities requiring leadership. Each of us is better off because of our WHF year. Now it’s time for me to stop sending others to do the work and time for me to start.”
Since that time, Mike has been a strong participant in WHF/WHFFA activities. We have been the beneficiaries of his wisdom and his energies, and the Program is better because of his efforts. Mike honored us by his persistent challenges of conventional wisdom and his unqualified friendship, regardless of our personal beliefs.
Well done faithful son! May you rest in peace. Jack LeCuyer
Remembrance from Percy Pierre (WHF Class of 1969-70): Drinking From the “Colored” Water Fountain — Memories of Mike Levett, By Percy A. Pierre, March 2, 2020. On more than one occasion, Mike told me a story about when he moved to Houston, Texas as a child and experienced the segregated South. He discovered that segregation extended to water fountains in public places. There was a water fountain for whites and a separate water fountain for “coloreds”. As a kid, he did not know what to make of it. However, his mother was incensed about it and told him that he must always drink from the colored water fountain.
I first met Mike Levett in the spring of 1969, after we both traveled from Los Angeles to San Francisco for the regional finals of the White House Fellows competition. I had not met Mike in Los Angeles, although we both had ties to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He as editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, and I was a part-time instructor in the College of Engineering.
In January of 1969, UCLA was the center of protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War. The Black Panthers Party and the organization known as US were rival African American groups working on the campus on civil rights issues. The FBI abetted that rivalry and encouraged conflict between them. In January of 1969, two members of the Black Panthers Party were shot and killed at a meeting on the campus, allegedly by US members. As a part-time faculty member, I met with other Black faculty members to discuss what could be done to help the situation. As Editor of The Daily Bruin, Mike knew a lot about what was happening on campus and also knew many of the players. When we met in San Francisco, we discussed the situation at UCLA and the need for progress in civil rights. We had no easy solutions but we both thought that becoming a White House Fellow would give us an opportunity to have an impact on some of the major issues facing the nation.
In May of 1969, we were both selected as White House Fellows. Mike was assigned to the Interior Department and I was assigned to the Urban Affairs Council in the White House. My responsibilities included several Cabinet departments, but not Interior. Thus we did not work together. Rather, I saw Mike at many educational events and social activities. We often discussed our work and our desire to have an impact on major national issues.
After our Fellows year, we occasionally met at the Annual White House Fellows Alumni meetings. I was fascinated by the career that Mike had pursued. He worked in Hollywood but then worked on many international development programs in Russia and Iraq. I was not surprised that Mike had deviated from the glamour of Hollywood to projects to help people all over the world.
When I moved to the DC area in 2013, I saw more of Mike. He was working at an international development company. My wife, Olga, and I had dinner with him and Isabel. Last year, when I decided to lead an effort to do an essay on our WHF class of 1969, Mike volunteered to help. He was a strong contributor to the effort. In November of last year, Landis Jones and I had lunch with Mike and learned that Mike had a rare disease that he had had for some time. Not long after that, I learned from Isabel that he was in intensive care with pneumonia and a severely compromised immune system. Given his condition, I did not visit him but stayed in touch with Isabel about his condition via text messages.
Isabel told me that Mike was a good patient while in intensive care except for the following. Even while heavily sedated and with a tracheal intubation, Mike decided to be Mike. In his wisdom and courage, he decided to remove the very uncomfortable tracheal intubation from his throat without consulting his doctors. When we heard about this, Olga and I were shocked. However, Mike survived his own medical intervention and was able to return home for further therapy. Olga and I saw him and Isabel in early January for tea at their home and he was his old self. In recognition of his medical intervention, I began to refer to him as Dr. Levett. We were very encouraged and looked forward to seeing more of him. Unfortunately, the progress he made did not last. He died on February 22, 2020.
Mike was a special person and a good friend of mine. I will always treasure my memories of him. He spent most of his life helping people who needed help. I believe that he spent his life “drinking from the colored water fountain”.
We extend our deepest condolences to Michael’s family, and to his White House Fellow classmates.posted: March 9, 2020
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