Obituary: David L. Levering

Professor, activist, friend

Claremont resident David Levering died July 11, three weeks short of his 93rd birthday.

David was a person of exceptional vigor, intellect and humor. His friendships were many, diverse and wholehearted.

Born in Redlands to a California native son and to amiable farm girl Ruth, from Kentucky, he had a peripatetic childhood. When the Depression hit, his father, Lee Gird Levering, took over the Los Angeles Branch of Redlands Savings and Loan, and the family lived in houses between foreclosure and resale. He and his brother Gird (Lee Jr.) attended seven elementary schools in four years.

Later he worked as a page in the State Assembly in Sacramento, as well as a restaurant waiter in Glendale and a Balboa Island ferryboat steering navigator.

He understood the life of a working man long before attending the University of Redlands, where he majored in history and was elected student body president. Fueled by a strong humanitarian impulse, he planned to become a Baptist minister.

After college he took a job with the World University Service, a non-governmental organization established after World War II to help students and professors from war-torn areas in Europe and Asia. The organization sent him to India for orientation along with other new hires. It was only two years after Mahatma Gandhi’s death, and a two-hour interview with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, made a lasting impression on him. Mr. Nehru’s commitment to nonviolence and peace marked him for life, as did his brother’s unexpected death in the Korean War. Mr. Levering’s strong belief in politics as a way to make change also took root during this period.

He earned a PhD in history from the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), studying under mentor and friend Douglass Adair. In 1963, after teaching thoughtful surveys for three years as an associate professor at U.C. Riverside, he began a three decade career as a professor of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

He was a founding member of the school’s history department and became an extremely popular teacher, earning the “distinguished teacher” award and attracting a devoted student following.

He was also a principal influence on curriculum reform, leading his department in converting the conventional European-predominant “western civilization” course sequence into the more suitable “world history” offering. His pioneering work in this effort impacted a general movement across academia to broaden the history discipline’s scope.

Additionally, he was a key figure in the university’s campus forum project, which, in the 1970s and 1980s brought together scholars from a variety of disciplines to make presentations at well-attended weekly faculty luncheon meetings. The campus forum undertaking expanded and eventually was responsible, with considerable guidance from Mr. Levering, in shaping what became Cal Poly Pomona’s Interdisciplinary General Education program.

While his life was marked by academic distinction, it was also characterized by persistent political activism, as his many friends and associates will long remember. Among a surfeit of honorable civic responsibilities, he served as president of Cal Poly Pomona’s Faculty Union, president of the regional A.C.L.U., and longtime active member of the local Democratic Club.

“In fact, he was the go-to person both at his university and in the wider community when good things needed to be done,” his Cal Poly colleague John Moore remembered.

Although he became an academic, his spiritual roots ran deep. The Danforth Foundation named him a Danforth Associate, an honor awarded to young faculty of promise. “They recognized in David a person of great intellect who also could engage students and colleagues in mutual respect. That quality was present throughout his life. It is rare to find a person of deep political and social convictions who also recognized and respected the worth of people with whom he disagreed,” said Richard L. Johnson, history professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona.

Mr. Levering was also an accomplished musician. As a young man he organized a dance band in which he played drums. Later he took up the guitar and, with a memorably mellifluous voice, he frequently played that instrument and sang at gatherings of students, colleagues, or friends—in many cases performing irresistible pro-labor songs from the interwar period.

Shortly following his retirement from Cal Poly Pomona, he was invited by the Cunard Line to lecture on the history and culture of ports of call on the Queen Elizabeth 2 between Sydney, Australia and Tokyo, Japan. The invitation led him to Lillian, an Aussie who became the light of his life for the next 26 years. Together, they made the most of life on two continents as long as their health allowed.

A person of intellect and a very active reader, he was also a person of action. In 1996 he accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party to run against the area’s entrenched Republican Representative to the U.S. Congress, David Dreier. “A pie in the sky idealist,” as he described himself, he was realist enough to recognize that life in Congress would require constant compromise, but believed the challenge was not insurmountable. “Although I didn’t win, it was a fascinating, rewarding experience,” was his characteristically positive response to the loss.
Mr. Levering’s life was twice marked by tragedy: the death of his brother in the Korean War, and the murder by a complete stranger of his 11-year-old daughter Lisa, who was traveling with her mother in Illinois in 1969.

He maintained his optimism in spite of life’s blows. His sympathy for the down-and-out, a legacy of the Depression, was perhaps intensified by these experiences. In any case, his role as a founder of the Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program at the end of his life testified to his enduring empathy for those bowed and broken by life. A member of Claremont Friends Meeting for 26 years, he lived according to his principles, with purpose, positive spirit and zest.

David Levering was truly a man for all seasons.


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