Leon Levine, who passed away on April 5, is being remembered as an innovative entrepreneur and a consequential philanthropist. Raised in Rockingham in rural Richmond County, Leon Levine began as the teenage proprietor of a bargain basement in his parents’ small-town department store and retired in 2003 as the founding president of Family Dollar Stores, a nationwide chain of some 8,000 outlets.
More significantly, Leon Levine will be remembered as the astonishing philanthropist who, with his wife Sandra, established the Leon Levine Foundation dedicated to “education, healthcare, human services, and Jewish values.” His memory continues to bless us all at the Levine Campus at Central Piedmont Community College campus, Levine Children’s Hospital, Levine Center for the Arts, Levine Jewish Community Center at Shalom Park, the Levine Science Research Center at Duke, as well as the Levine School of Business and Information Technology at Richmond County Community College in his native Rockingham. There are scholarship programs at UNC-Charlotte, Queens University, among other places, as well as grants to support preschoolers and seniors, Jewish day schools and campus Jewish studies programs. That’s but a sampling, and beyond the Foundation was the personal philanthropy from Leon and Sandra, who would be touched to give by a heartrending newspaper story.
The Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina has been a beneficiary of Levine’s bountiful and generous spirit. When we struggled to launch our multimedia project Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina, Sandra and Leon Levine agreed to host a fundraising event at the Levine Museum of the New South. After an effusive introduction from our honorary chair Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., Leon arose and spoke from his heart. He and Sandra had discussed our project and agreed to make an extraordinarily generous gift that ensured our ambition to tell North Carolina’s Jewish story would be brought to fruition. And their philanthropy was not just to underwrite the project themselves, but to challenge others to give. That mitzvah was one good deed that inspired others.
When our film crew visited the Levine home to interview Leon and Sandra, we saw the trappings of wealth and elegance, but more memorable was the modesty and warmth of the couple who greeted us. “It was very important to him to give back to the community that made him successful,” Sandra told us. As Leon recounted memories—even the oft-told story of how he looked for oil stains in a parking lot when seeking store locations—his eyes would twinkle. No story delighted him more than when he recalled how, at sixteen, he opened his own bargain-basement in his widowed mother’s department store, his first retail success. “I liked the bargain end of the business,” he said of that youthful escapade. It seemed fitting that his business focused on neighborhood stores with bargain prices to people whom he knew well and that his philanthropies would provide healthcare, education, and financial support to those in need.
As we left, I asked if he were still that small-town kid from Rockingham, North Carolina. He smiled, and answered that, yes, indeed he was.