The ACLU of Virginia mourns the loss of one of its great founders—John M. Levy. The loss belongs not just to us, but to the world for he was a kind, compassionate man who worked tirelessly to make the world a better place. Sadly, our staff and board members will no longer hear John say, “Greetings!” a simple, cheery, inviting welcome that so completely fit his personality.
From the organization’s beginning nearly 50 years ago, John was there guiding the organization’s development and growth. He served as a member of the Board of Directors from the late 1960s through 2015. His tact and diplomacy fostered cooperation and civility on the Board and on the many committees on which he served. With patience and a wealth of wisdom, he served as a mentor and sounding board to the organization’s executive directors and lawyers.
For decades, John was also an integral part of the legal program helping to decide which civil liberties cases to tackle and debating issues of advancing constitutional law in Virginia. He had a natural gift for understanding not only whether a case had merit, but also its value for public education and its ability to make good law to advance social justice. He unflinchingly insisted on taking on unpopular clients and cases to defend constitutional principles, including that of a Ku Klux Klansman charged with cross-burning. John was a man of honor. He placed high value on ethics in the practice of law, offering guidance on ethics questions whenever they arose for ACLU of Virginia attorneys.
John cared deeply about racial equality and worked on voting rights cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s to increase minority representation in local government. He saw the injustice of a system in which poverty resulted in limited access to legal representation and sought to right that wrong by running legal aid programs in Richmond and the Peninsula, which serves Williamsburg and the Eastern Shore.
John’s deep commitment to leaving the world better than he found it makes him the epitome of our values. He was a man of courage, deep integrity, and a strong sense of justice who worked to improve people’s lives and sought to make progress. We will all miss his generosity—he gave of himself in every way. Whenever we need a little guidance, we’ll rub our “feely fish”* and channel John’s spirit.
Our thoughts are with John’s wife, Kaye, and their family. Kaye was always by John’s side, shared his commitment to leaving things a little better than they found it, and was a regular visitor to ACLU of Virginia meetings.
*John enjoyed wood carving, especially his cedar “feely fish” and talking sticks. He always seemed to have on hand a small wooden fish to give to those he met and explained its calming effect. When a person rubs their fingers along the fish, it brings a calm to the person and the oils from the fingers smooths and darkens the wood.