Philadelphia Ad Man Steve Levine Dies at 84

Steve Levine with his wife Susan Bodner Levine (Courtesy of the Levine family)

Steve Levine was such a successful ad man that, when the television series “Mad Men” became a hit, The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed him about the industry.

The Jewish Philadelphian pitched Donald Trump for Trump Organization business, Barron Hilton for Hilton Hotels Corp. business and various other big names. He was a real-life Don Draper, the main character of “Mad Men” played by Jon Hamm — though the real-life pitch sessions were far less dramatic than their fictional counterparts in the show, according to Levine’s son David.

But for a man who moved to Philadelphia as a young man and stayed in the area for most of his life, no pitch mattered more than the one he made to Phillies President Bill Giles in 1979. Giles said the Phillies, who had fallen short of the World Series in recent years with two 100-plus win teams, would not have the money to sign Pete Rose, the hit king who would likely become Major League Baseball’s first-ever $1 million man. Levine responded with an idea.

“Why don’t we call some of our clients to get some endorsement money to see if that will help?” he asked.

They came up with about $150,000 in endorsement deals to add to the offer. Rose signed and helped the talented Phillies win the 1980 World Series.

The ad man who played a small but important role in bringing a World Series to Philadelphia died on Oct. 29 in South Florida. He was 84.

Levine is survived by his wife Susan Bodner Levine; children Lisa Levine (Eddie), Janet Steinman (Ray), David Levine and Lauren Sager (Dan); and eight grandchildren. The real-life Draper was born on Aug. 22, 1938, to Jacob and Lillian Sutin Levine in Albany, New York. As a kid, he attended Camp Ramah and graduated from Albany High School in 1956 and Syracuse University in 1960.

Levine worked for Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati before arriving in Philadelphia to join the marketing firm of Kalish, Agnew, Spiro and Rice. He later worked for Elkman Advertising and Counselor Films.

“If he met you, he made you feel like you were the only person in the room,” David Levine said.

Advertising was Levine’s profession, but Judaism and Israel may have been his passions. As his son explained in an email, “Steve’s influence on the Jewish community of Philadelphia was profound.” Levine served on the board of directors for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Exponent and the Akiba Hebrew Academy (now the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy). The family belonged to Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.

But as an American child who was born as the Holocaust was starting in Europe, and who came of age in the years following World War II, Levine maintained a particular devotion to Israel. The Jewish state was born in its modern form in 1948, and Levine “fell in love” with it as a child, his son said.

This mindset was ingrained in him by his father Jacob, who escaped pogroms in Ukraine, landed in Israel and then immigrated to the United States. But it was in Israel, even before it was the Jewish state, where Jacob found peace and stability. Jacob Levine stayed in touch with the people he met there even after moving to the U.S. He became an avid Zionist and passed the enthusiasm down to his son.

“He was such an avid Zionist to the point where I couldn’t say anything that he didn’t believe in without him correcting me,” said David Levine of his father. “He knew so many people who were involved in the origins of Israel.”

Steve Levine, his grandson Jacob Rehfeldt and Pete Rose, who Levine helped bring to Philadelphia in 1979 (Courtesy of the Levine family)

Steve Levine visited Israel several times and even brought the Jewish state into his home here. When David Levine was young, his family took in an Israeli exchange student for a year. Steve Levine’s devotion, passed down from his father, continued into the next generation. All of his kids have now visited Israel, too, except for David Levine.

But in the years before his dad died, David Levine was able to spend quality time with him to talk about the older man’s experiences. He heard about the advertising war stories, the service to the Jewish community and the commitment to the Jewish state. The son is not quite sure why he hasn’t gone to Israel. Now though, he is pretty sure that he wants to.

“I’m the only one in the family who hasn’t,” he said.

As a kid, David Levine, now 52, attended the clinching game of the 1980 World Series. But he did not realize that his father had played a role.

“It wasn’t until later in life that I really understood the impact,” he said. JE


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