Like many of you, I learned of Gary Levitt's unexpected passing this morning. I received a call from his wife Barbara, and in our brief, but emotional conversation, she said, “Maribeth, you got the very best of him.” Those words have stuck with me throughout the day, because I know what Barbara meant was that Gary gave his everything to US, collectively – to our entire Penn State community -- particularly in the last four years. Gary and I were kindred agency spirits, fellow alums with shared Penn State experiences more than three decades apart, and partners in crime when it came to amplifying the voice of saddened, frustrated, yet passionate, relentless Penn Staters. In the early days of PS4RS, it wasn’t difficult to pick out Gary as the ad man in our group. With every Facebook post or comment, his finesse, intelligence, knowledge and passion reflected someone who lived and breathed every aspect of Penn State. I often called him Philadelphia’s original ‘Mad Man.’ In its heyday, Gary’s well-known ad agency ran some of Philadelphia’s most successful political campaigns, worked for such coveted clients as Wendy’s (where he met Franco Harris for the first time) and the PA Lottery, and was even the inspiration for the hit TV show “ThirtySomething.” So, for me, it wasn’t a stretch (although maybe a little intimidating at first) to tap our very own Don Draper when PS4RS was charged with its first membership campaign back in September 2012. We were going out with billboards, courtesy of a generous donor, and we needed a headline. The very first one that Gary proposed still stands today as our rallying cry…as poignant as the day he wrote it.
“You can’t cover up 61 years of success with honor.”
Gary penned every headline the organization has published since, and was instrumental in communications strategy for each subsequent successful campaign. While words were never difficult for him to find, keeping them under wraps until we unveiled them to the PS4RS membership was a constant challenge! He became ‘the cat who ate the canary’ every single time we had a new ad to share, and often put me in the hot seat with PS4RS leadership when he teased our communications plans in just a little too much detail. No doubt, his excitement stemmed from his pure passion for our cause. As has been said in so many other posts today, Gary was a true warrior, the ultimate Penn State cheerleader. He believed in his heart that our effort since November 2011 had made a big difference and he was committed to seeing it through. I just found an email he had sent to me in April 2012, on the eve of a meeting we had scheduled with Karen Peetz, Mark Dambly and Keith Masser.
“It is the incompetence of this Board and the impotence of this Administration that we really can't tolerate,” he wrote. “Of course, Joe's reputation and legacy must be made whole. There is absolutely no movement on that issue. They must earn Sue Paterno's public forgiveness and support. They must acknowledge that mistakes were made and that it will be their mission in the coming months to right those wrongs. No weasel words. No CYA statements. No excuses. A sincere apology followed by taking the lead in honoring the man who has meant so much to so many of us for so many decades. If that's the recipe for Kool-aid, then show the world how good it tastes.”
As with Gary’s headlines, his marching orders also still ring true today. He voiced the words we have all felt in our hearts since the day we were brought together.
We will all surely miss Gary’s gentle barbs to those of us not lucky enough to soak up the Florida sun, and the pride he had for his Chestnut Hill grounds any time of the year, not to mention his occasional nudges toward holistic living and yoga practice. We’ll miss his love of family and friends that he shared so regularly, reminiscing of his Pittsburgh boyhood, and the many Philadelphia ad agency career highlights he was lucky to experience. We’ll miss the push ups he would predictably boast about during every Penn State game. Some of us will even miss his passionate political commentary and his online ‘jousting’ with those critical of our PS4RS mission. Most of all, though, I'm certain I will miss lunches and phone calls and emails with someone who taught me a lifetime’s worth of lessons in four short years....not the least of which was how to be a true Penn Stater.
May Gary rest in peace knowing we will continue his fight -- our fight -- for the glory of Penn State.