Most people, when looking back at their lives, like to think they’ve lived ethically, guided by a moral compass and the best of intentions.
But not many people have ethics and morals woven into the fabric of their everyday life, from professional obligations to personal connections, the way Leon G. Wigrizer, who died Feb. 24 at the age of 90, did.
Professionally, the Massachusetts native spent his entire life devoted to public service, forging a career path that started locally, in Philadelphia, with the IRS and culminated in national roles with large-scale implications.
During his career with the IRS, he was involved in many high-profile cases, including the prosecution of U.S. Rep. Edward Gallagher of New Jersey and the investigation into then-President Nixon’s tax filings. In 1978, he was named the Treasury Department’s first inspector general and significantly shaped the policies and procedures of the department’s integrity programs under President Jimmy Carter.
After almost 30 years in federal government, Wigrizer was appointed Philadelphia’s first inspector general by Mayor Wilson Goode. He ferreted out corruption and waste during his tenure, resulting in 400 arrests and job actions. He also prosecuted corrupt inspectors as director of the city’s department of Licenses and Inspections.
He was appointed SEPTA’s first inspector general in 1991; after his retirement in 1997, he continued to speak publicly about ethics and corruption in government and public service.
Not surprisingly, his professional preoccupation with integrity filtered down to his personal life, as he raised two children, Steven and Fay, in close-knit Melrose Park with his late wife of 64 years, Devora “Dee” Wigrizer.
“My father believed in rules and limits, and he taught me and my sister about honesty and integrity,” said his son, Steven Wigrizer, a lawyer in Philadelphia. “He also taught me that when you are dishonest or you break rules, there are repercussions. I was a little rebellious as a kid, and I became very familiar with those repercussions. But my father taught us to be respectful and law-abiding people, and we’ve tried our whole lives to honor that example.”
Leon Wigrizer was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts to Morris and Jennie Wigrizer, who both survived pogroms in Ukraine and Soviet Russia. Morris Wigrizer’s experience was especially harrowing, as detailed both by Steven Wigrizer and by Leon Wigrizer himself in a YouTube documentary about the latter’s life.
“Gangs of men would go into towns and terrorize, beat and kill people simply because of their Jewish faith,” Steven Wigrizer said. Despite his mother paying money to the Bolshevik soldiers, Morris Wigrizer was taken out of the house, his head split open with an ax, and left for dead. The family brought him back to the house and built a false wall, where he hid as he recovered.
“It was miraculous that he even lived,” Steven Wigrizer said. “He then was in a position to escape his country and make his way to America.”
Morris and Jennie Wigrizer raised Leon and his two sisters, Harriet and Shirley, in New England, in what Leon Wigrizer remembered as a happy childhood. But Morris Wigrizer’s dark history had a profound impact on his son.
“The way my father looked at things was that America literally saved his father’s life,” Steven Wigrizer said. “It also gave him a tremendous sense of faith because he was a deeply, deeply religious man.” (Leon Wigrizer was an active member of Historic Congregation Kesher Israel in Society Hill until his death.)
After Leon Wigrizer graduated from Boston University School of Law in 1950, he entered the civil service.
“We’re all the product of our experiences and our upbringing,” Steven Wigrizer said. “Because of the gratitude that he and his family felt for what this country did for him, he chose public service.”
That choice was by no means a given, as Leon Wigrizer was an award-winning photographer even in his teens. Photography was a passion he pursued throughout his life, exhibiting locally, nationally and internationally.
“He was a photographic pioneer and he lectured and he wrote [about photography],” Steven Wigrizer said. “The same was true of computers in the early days. He actually contributed to computer magazines. On top of that, he did carpentry, electrical work — he was a real renaissance man. He could have done anything.”
Leon Wigrizer was grandfather to Justin, Michael, David, Danny, Jennie and Shari, and father-in-law to Steven Wigrizer’s wife, Debbie, and Fay’s husband, Jeff Adams.
He died peacefully, surrounded by family at his Hopkinson House residence on Washington Square. A funeral was held by Joseph Levine and Sons. Contributions may be made to Historic Congregation Kesher Israel, 412 Lombard St., Philadelphia, PA 19147.
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