The three biggest things to hit Pensacola just might be Jesus, Hurricane Ivan and Fred Levin
Published in 2006 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
on June 14, 2006
Updated on January 25, 2017
Hurricanes have a way of democratizing. Fred Levin, for example, is one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in Pensacola. He counts Jack Kemp, artist LeRoy Neiman and former governor Reubin Askew as friends. He is a Ghanaian tribal chief, one of only a few non-Ghanaians (among the others are Shirley Temple Black and the late congresswoman Barbara Jordan) ever given this honor. The law school at the University of Florida bears his name.
Almost two years after Hurricane Ivan, all that means is that his pile of beachfront rubble is larger than his neighbors’ piles.
“I’d never been through a hurricane,” says Levin, as he stares out at the wreckage. “Ivan was my first.” He is resigned, not angry. Enough things — good and bad — have happened to Levin during his life that the loss of a grand beachfront home is a small bump in the road.
The three biggest things to hit Pensacola: Jesus, Hurricane Ivan and Fred Levin. There are 435 churches in the area (roughly one per 130 residents of the city). For Levin, who grew up in one of the approximately 350 Jewish families in the area, this means, as he recounts with a chuckle, that “every minister in town is always trying to save me.” As for Ivan, the impact is very real and very current.
The scene on Pensacola Beach is apocalyptic. Homes are missing roofs, windows, large chunks of siding or they’re just plain gone. Addresses painted on leftover pieces of wood identify the piles that were once homes. Pristine white sand has blown across the roads, many of which are impassable. And everywhere is the sight of Tyvek home wrap. Pensacola has finally begun to rebuild. Levin drives past all of this to the site of Portofino, a large high-rise condo development owned by his younger brother, Allen. “This is my brother’s latest development,” he says, quietly. A few minutes before, Levin received a call from his son, Martin, who, along with Allen, Levin’s University of Florida roommate Fred Vigodsky, and former Buffalo Bills head coach Kay Stephenson, make up his inner circle of friends. Martin is a former president of Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Echsner & Proctor. He left the firm in 2001 to attend Harvard Divinity School.
Martin Levin and Kay Stephenson now run SmartCop, one of Fred’s ventures that designs software for public safety work. Joining Fred and Kay on SmartCop’s board of directors are Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Dallas Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery. Martin’s call wasn’t about SmartCop, however.
Allen Levin has lung cancer. Martin had called to give an update on Allen’s status, who at the time was in Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City awaiting surgery. He has since refused surgery and is back home in Pensacola.
There were six Levin brothers born to Abe and Rose Levin, who arrived in Pensacola in 1928. Fred Levin’s contemporaries still speak fondly of Abe, who owned a pawnshop downtown and eventually took over concessions for the dog track and the beach. “My father was the superstar of the Jewish community,” says Levin. “At services, he was the one holding the Torah. He was my hero.”
By his own admission, Levin skated through his early years. He was a classroom cutup and a mediocre student. He thought he would “come back and work in my father’s pawnshop.” Instead, he enrolled in the University of Florida Law School, which “anyone” could get into.
Two events pierced the easygoing armor of Levin’s post-graduate life. The first was the death of his younger brother, Martin, at 17, from leukemia, just before he began law school. “After Martin died,” says Levin, the wound still fresh, “I don’t think I ever saw my mother smile. Everything had gone so well. That was the first bad thing to happen to us.”
Levin’s second great shock came in 1958, when he trooped off to law school. On his first day, he found 330 white students and one black one: George Starke Jr., the first African American to enter an integrated public school in Florida. When he arrived at UF Law he was accompanied by two U.S. marshals. The white students did their best to make his life a living hell.
Every time Starke entered a classroom or opened his mouth to speak, other students mockingly shuffled their feet. “They shuffled him, 330 people,” says Levin. “And the teachers were no help, either.”
Levin, still an indifferent student, was also shuffled, for a different reason. “Eventually, they shuffled me; George because he was black, me because I was stupid.” Starke and Levin were shunned from study groups. They each studied alone. Finally, first-semester grades were released. To everyone’s surprise, Levin, the class clown, was No. 1 in his class.
Levin used his new power to force his classmates to accept Starke. The two former outcasts created their own study group, and eventually, everyone else wanted to join.
“That was my first major accomplishment,” he says. Decades later, in 1999, Levin asked the law school to find Starke, so he could be present to see the school become the Fredric G. Levin School of Law.
This was a defining moment. Levin found in Starke’s struggles a motivation stronger than the money his enemies claim is his only true love. He learned that he loved taking on “the country club people.” Even now, at age 68, after a lifetime of notable accomplishments, Levin is still trying to stick it to the man.
But the man sticks back. During his career, Levin has been accused of everything from “thumbing his nose at the bar” to running Pensacola as his own organized crime petri dish. “You could write a book, the different damn things people have accused me of,” he says.
Take the case of sheriff Charlie Johnson. He once released a prisoner from jail because the man claimed he was “Fred Levin’s drug runner.” The ex-con led law enforcement to a spot on the beach, where he claimed $2 million in drug money was buried. They found nothing. Johnson created a chart outlining organized crime in Pensacola. Levin’s photo, like that of Junior Soprano, was at the top.
All of this, including the time a woman burst into his office with a gun and shouted, “I know you’re interfering with my TV!” Levin treats with a chuckle. He considers his celebrated run-ins with the bar the price of doing business. “The bar association brought me down and I said, ‘Let me tell y’all something. There are five lawyers in Pensacola right now who stole money from clients and they’re still practicing while y’all are screwing around.’”
“Dad likes to be the center of attention,” says Martin Levin, Fred’s only son, out of four children. “He likes to be out front.” An admitted absentee parent, Levin says he and his son are now thick as thieves. Martin spends two weeks each month in Pensacola with SmartCop, the other two at home in Boston, where he has a wife and son and is on the board of advisors for Harvard Divinity School.
“It’s the honesty,” says Kay Stephenson of the elder Levin. “He’s not going to compromise himself for anything. And he’s always in the game, always wanting to win.”
Martin agrees: “He’s not going to back down,” which seems to describe the son as much as it does the father. Fred has the laidback Southerner vibe, while Martin, although born and bred in the South, has the intensity of an Easterner. Of his father, he says, “What he calls empathy, I sometimes call foolishness.”
“I can’t stand to see someone mistreated,” says Levin. He is considering his strengths as a lawyer, given that he claims no particular toughness or smarts. “I’m an empathetic person. I’m able to put myself in another person’s position, not just the victim, but everyone involved in a case.”
Levin never wanted to be a trial lawyer. After flirting with tax law, he returned to Pensacola to join his brother David’s firm and specialize in divorce cases. “You got $50 for each divorce. I figured it’d be easy, and I’d never have to go to court.” Eventually, though, an insurance case came into the office and he decided to give it a shot.
Levin squared off against Bert Lane, whom he calls “the baddest defense lawyer in America.” Even though he begged his client to settle out of court, Levin won Angeliki Theodore $50,000, more than twice what she had been seeking in damages since her home burned to the ground. The case made local headlines, and Levin caught the trial lawyer bug.
Since 1962, Levin has won more than 25 $1 million-plus verdicts, including six of more than $10 million. He is best known for his work in Florida’s 1993 case against the tobacco industry, a case that, typically, he says “fell into his lap.”
“I was at Whistler, in British Columbia, sitting in the bar smoking a cigarette, having a drink, and Ron Motley comes up to me and says, ‘How would you like to handle a tobacco case in Florida?’” Initially, Levin wasn’t too keen on the case, but later, he says, “I reached for a statute book and it opened up to this thing on Medicaid. I started reading it and thought, ‘You know, I could change a few words in this statute and it would be perfect for a tobacco case.’”
Levin and good friend W.D. Childers, then-president of the Florida Senate, met with Gov. Lawton Chiles and got the statute changed. The resulting legislation, the Third Party Medicaid Liability Recovery Act, became the backbone of all later tobacco cases. Gov. Chiles called it “the most significant piece of legislation I had ever signed.”
Childers had Levin assemble a “dream team.” They won a $13 billion settlement for Florida. Levin donated $10 million of his share in the earnings to the University of Florida, which in turn named its law school The Fredric G. Levin College of Law. The country club people went crazy.
“You degraded the image and prestige of the University of Florida College of Law by selling its good name to Fred Levin,” read a letter from a longtime Levin foe. Levin recounts this with undisguised glee. “It makes me feel great,” he crows. “When [their] great-grandchildren go up on that stage to get that law degree, they’ll know that, dadgum it, that Jew’s name is up there on that damn diploma. It’s just gotta eat at [them]!”
The tobacco case left another legacy — thousands of saved lives every year. Add this to a case he won in 1969, forcing Parke-Davis, makers of Chloromycetin, to stop producing the drug when it was proven to lead to potentially fatal side effects. Levin proudly points out that these two cases have resulted in “saving more lives than were lost in Korea and Vietnam combined.” This, not the law school, is what he is most proud of.
Hurricane Ivan did to Pensacola’s leading lawyer, life saver and cage rattler what the country club types could not: push Fred Levin around. But he has moved from his makeshift office back into Levin Papantonio’s main offices, where he sits directly under a LeRoy Neiman portrait of himself and his wife, Marilyn. He met Neiman while working with boxer Roy Jones Jr.
Levin calls his experience with Jones another “lucky break.” The boxer, a Pensacolan, came to Fred through another Levin brother. Stanley Levin knew Jones from the Pensacola Boy’s Club, and arranged a meeting. Fred, despite “not knowing what the hell I was doing,” became Roy’s lawyer and manager. In 1995, he was named Boxing Manager of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
When David Levin’s former law partner Reubin Askew, with financial backing from the Levin brothers, became governor of Florida in 1971, some anointed the brothers “kingmakers.” He definitely looked the role the night Jones’ manager (and former boxer) Thad Spencer accosted Levin in a bar, asking if he could just touch him, so that maybe some of the magic would rub off.
“I had the most fun in boxing,” recalls Levin. “I never made much money at it, but I met so many people,” including Levin-managed welterweight Ike Quartey, the Ghanaian who held the WBC title from 1996 to1999, Muhammad Ali and, of course, Don King. “Don was probably the greatest negotiator I’ve ever seen,” says Levin. “He uses race; he’s the master of that.”
Frustrated at the corruption in the sport and wanting to unify the alphabet soup of championship belts, Levin, with Jack Kemp and Terdema Ussery, tried to establish a boxing league. “We were this close,” he says. “Phil Knight [of Nike] turned it down because he was scared of boxing, and Budweiser turned it down because they were scared of Don King.” The idea died, and Levin gradually distanced himself from a sport he loved. “It’s a great sport, but they screwed it up. Now NASCAR is the big deal.”
Many of Fred Levin’s work days end at the Atlas Café, a Pensacola restaurant, where he is joined by his son, Fred Vigodsky and Stephenson. There they nurse drinks and talk about football and the day’s events.
Tonight Kay Stephenson tells about the time African American USC tailback Sam “Bam” Cunningham scored five touchdowns against Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide. Bryant brought Cunningham into his locker room after the game and announced to his team, “This, men, is a football player.” The following year, Alabama football was integrated.
The Bear had nothing on Pensacola’s lightning rod of a trial lawyer, Fred Levin. Despite his detractors and accusers, and despite the best efforts of Hurricane Ivan, the “small-town Jewish lawyer” continues to poke his fingers into the eyes of the country club crowd, even as he surpasses them in wealth and power. And, at 68, he will continue to work. “What else am I going to do?” he says.