Some don’t aspire to retirement; they aspire to never retire.
That’s the spirit family and friends say best described Norman L. Leventhal, who long served Warrington Township, co-owned a Bucks County landmark, co-founded the first school in Israel to train guide dogs for the blind and played racquetball with his grandson on his 90th birthday.
Leventhal died on Feb. 23, of complications from colitis. He was 90.
Born May 9, 1929, in Utica, New York, Leventhal moved around a lot growing up — “his father was a rolling stone,” family said, resulting in Leventhal living for periods throughout the northeastern United States.
Demonstrating strong mechanical and scientific aptitudes, he was recruited into the Army’s Special Weapons Development Program and was stationed in New Mexico. Leventhal’s son Michael said his father’s work entailed working on “projects ancillary to the development of atomic weapons,” but that he wasn’t directly part of the teams developing A-bombs because he had moved around so much as a child. “He couldn’t get the top clearance that he needed because the FBI couldn’t follow all of his moves as a child.”
Following military service, Leventhal applied his scientific background to earning a degree in chemical engineering from Northeastern University. That led to a job with General Electric, where he worked on a team charged with developing man-made diamonds for industrial cutting applications.
“He wanted to become an engineer,” Michael Leventhal said, “because he was told that Jews are not engineers. Anytime you told him he couldn’t do something, he kicked it into high gear and got it done — that was especially true later on with the guide dog school.”
Decades before the guide dog school, Leventhal, his brother Jack (who died in October) and his wife of 63 years, Phyllis (who died three years ago), turned a modest family business into a neighborhood landmark. The Warrington Motor Lodge and Restaurant, with its memorable brown and white sign along PA 611, was a place where girls had Sweet 16s, football teams held end-of-season banquets, and local teens worked first jobs.
“You cannot find an employee that did not love that guy and work hard because of him,” Michael Leventhal said. “He was an inspirational-type leader; he truly treated people the way he wanted to be treated.”
“I don’t know anybody he ever had a cross word for,” he continued. “I don’t know anyone he ever had a fight with … and he was in politics.”
Leventhal served on the Warrington Township Planning Commission then became chairman of the township’s municipal authority, where he wrote new zoning regulations for the quickly growing suburban community.
He was president of the PTA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Bucks County, Warrington Rotary and Congregation Tiferes B’nai Israel, the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Bucks County.
Leventhal’s civic and political engagement would expand beyond Bucks County — and beyond the United States.
Like many in the late 1970s, Leventhal was troubled by the Soviet Union’s treatment of the refuseniks, Russian Jews who wanted to move to Israel. Leventhal acted, traveling to the Soviet Union and enduring hours of interrogation in Moscow’s airport to meet with refuseniks, for whom he’d brought pairs of coveted American blue jeans.
Aiding Leventhal in navigating the logistics of his trip to Moscow was a diplomat from the Israeli consulate in New York, who sometime later would come to know a man named Noach Braun. Braun was a former dog trainer in the Israeli military whose dream was to open a center for training seeing-eye dogs to aid Israel’s blind.
The Israeli diplomat didn’t know how to help Braun, but he knew a guy industrious and audacious enough to try: Norman Leventhal.
Over the past 30 years, the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind has trained 760 guide dogs, plus another 300 emotional support dogs.
“In order to achieve a dream, you need partners,” said Braun. “To meet Norman, I was the luckiest man.”
Braun’s pipe dream is now an organization with an annual budget of more than $3 million. Without Leventhal, he said, it couldn’t have happened.
“I almost gave up, and then I met Norman,” Braun said. “It all succeeded because Norman worked very, very hard to get the guide-dog schools (where Braun trained) in America to open the door for me.”
Aside from son Michael, Leventhal is survived by children Frank, Jeff, Steven and Amy, and eight grandchildren.
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