Martin Levin's Journey To Harvard Divinity School

Source: Gannett | Release Date: 12/23/2002

MARTIN LEVIN’S JOURNEY:

FROM POWERFUL ATTORNEY TO HARVARD DIVINITY STUDENT

written by Randy Hammer, Gannett

(Boston)-- Two years ago, Martin Levin was dancing at his father’s New Year’s Eve party that celebrated the coming of the New Millennium. It seemed to friends at the party that he had everything going for him. But something was wrong.

‘‘I really wasn’t happy then,’’ said Martin. ‘‘I wasn’t very happy at all.’’

Martin Levin was at a low point in his life as he celebrated the New Millennium. He was depressed and burned out; his wife was worried about him.

‘‘He just wasn’t himself,’’ said Terri Levin. ‘‘Not a lot of people noticed because Martin is such an upbeat person. But I knew something was wrong, and so did the people closest to him.’’

People like Mike Papantonio, his best friend and law partner; Robin White, his secretary; and especially Fred Levin, his father.

‘‘I knew he wasn’t happy,’’ said Fred. ‘‘At first I thought he was going through a phase, an early mid-life crisis or something. But Martin is a pretty deep person, unlike his dad. And I could tell he was struggling with a lot of things. I just couldn’t figure out what.’’

It was about six months after the New Year’s Eve party that Fred grew particularly worried about his son. Martin and Fred had just won a $31 million lawsuit.

‘‘I was feeling great,’’ said Fred. ‘‘We had just won $31 million. So we were walking down the steps of the courthouse, and I told Martin, ‘Let’s go get a drink and celebrate.’˚”

Martin lowered his head.

‘‘It was too much money, Dad. It’s just not right.’’

Fred threw his arm around Martin’s shoulders.

‘‘What do you mean it was too much money? There’s no such thing. Now come on, let’s go get a drink.’’

Martin smiled and shrugged.

‘‘I think I’ll just go home.’’

Fred watched his son walk away.

‘‘There just wasn’t any happiness there,’’ said Fred. ‘‘I was really worried about him.’’

Martin’s mood seemed to particularly slide after the New Millennium party.

‘‘I didn’t know what was the matter with him,’’ said White, who took over as Martin’s secretary shortly after he became president of the firm in 1996. ‘‘We had a prayer group at the firm, a few Christian ladies who would get together and pray. I told them I was worried about Martin, and we prayed for him.’’

Shortly after that, Fred Levin, one of the most successful and wealthiest attorneys in the nation, who has been featured in Time and Newsweek and on the cover of US magazine, received ‘‘the biggest shock’’ of his life.

Fred’s brother, Allen, called and said, ‘‘Can just you and I have a drink?’’

Allen and Fred see each other frequently, so Fred didn’t think much of it when Allen asked to meet him at Copeland’s Restaurant.

A CHANGE OF LIFE

‘‘Allen walked in, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Now don’t get upset.’ And then he tells me that Martin has been accepted to Harvard Divinity School.’’

Fred choked on his Crown and water.

‘‘What! What are you telling me Allen, that Martin wants to become a priest?’’

Fred Levin, whose family helped establish B’Nai Israel Synagogue on Ninth Avenue, was as confused and bewildered as he had ever been.

‘‘I just didn’t know what to think,’’ said Fred. ‘‘Sure, I was worried about my son. But I was also worried about the firm. Martin’s last five verdicts were in excess of $20 million. This was not only a big blow to me, but a big blow to the firm.’’

Indeed, Martin Levin had become one of the wealthiest men in Pensacola by the time he turned 30. He had become president of the law firm that his uncle, David Levin, and Reubin Askew, the former governor of Florida, had created in 1955. And he was in line to become president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers Association.

‘‘Most people don’t realize how good Martin is,’’ said Bob Kerrigan, an attorney who has worked with the Levins and against the Levins. ‘‘They think because his father is Fred Levin that Martin has had everything given to him, that he’s a daddy’s boy.

‘‘That’s not really fair because Martin is the best. He’s a fine attorney in his own right. He has gone up against some of the best attorneys in the nation, and he has whipped them all. I think Martin is a better attorney than his dad.’’

In January 2001, at age 36, Martin Levin decided to walk away from the practice of law and an annual multimillion-dollar income.

But the story you’re about to read isn’t so much about what Martin Levin walked away from, but about what Martin Levin walked into. It’s about a man who says he was lost, who kept thinking, ‘‘There has got to be more,’’ and how he went about discovering himself, trying to answer the question all people eventually come to ask of themselves: ‘‘Why am I here?’’

Earlier this summer, Martin finished his first year at Harvard Divinity School. ‘‘It was the most incredible year of my life,’’ he said. He learned a lot about himself, about happiness and about God. He and his wife, Terri, had their first child, Dustin, in April.

‘‘For some unknown reason, ever since I was born I have received more blessings than I deserve, or any one person deserves,’’ said Martin.

‘‘I grew up in a wealthy and loving family, wanting for nothing. My parents bought me and gave me whatever I asked for, whether I needed it or not.

‘‘I have always had family, relatives and friends provide needed guidance and moral support. I have an incredibly loving and kind wife, and now a healthy son, who unfortunately looks like his father.

‘‘I look back at my life, and I had no reason to be unhappy. But I was.’’

Then Martin figured out what was wrong, what was missing:

God.

‘‘It took me a long time to get there,’’ he recalled.

This story, in a nutshell, is about Martin Levin’s journey to God and Harvard Divinity School.

In the beginning

Martin was born in 1964, one of four children of Marilyn and Fred Levin. He grew up as the only boy in a household of three sisters – Marci, Debbie and Kim.

‘‘I can tell you this: He wasn’t born with a halo,’’ said older sister Marci Levin Goodman, who is a circuit judge in Santa Rosa County. ‘‘He was a typical little brother – you know, always getting in the way.’’

His teachers, however, said he was anything but typical.

‘‘Martin was very smart, very polite and very athletic,’’ said Hub Stacey, owner of a restaurant and bar on Seville Square. Stacey taught Martin at Pensacola School for Liberal Arts in the 1970s.

‘‘You could tell right off that he was a special kid, a special student. I knew he was going to be successful.’’

So did his mother.

‘‘Martin and I used to read Aristotle together when he was little. He was my third child, and he was my peacemaker...I knew he would do good,’’ said Marilyn.

‘‘Dad didn’t spend a lot of time with the children when we were growing up,’’ said Martin. ‘‘My mother raised us. But you know how there are some people you don’t have to be around a lot for them to have an incredible influence over your life?

‘‘That was Dad. He was so dynamic. And when you were around him, you got the truest sense of fairness. You felt like the right thing was being done. That’s why he had such a big influence over us children, because you never felt like Dad was being unfair or unjust.

‘‘But Dad was always working. He didn’t spend a lot of time with us, and he didn’t come to many sporting events or graduations.’’

Martin graduated number three in his class of 300 from Washington High School in 1982, then from Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where he earned his undergraduate degree with honors and distinction in economics, and then graduated number one in his class from the University of Florida College of Law, which was named after his father three years ago.

GROWING UP FAST

Martin’s mother became sick when he was 14, and she was not able to take care of the children. Although his father tried to help, Fred found it hard to pull himself away from the caseload at work. The job of paying the monthly electric, utility, and cable bills, and doing all the grocery shopping fell to Martin.

When the roof on the Levin house needed to be replaced, Martin was the one who found and paid the roofers. At 15, he was the only kid he knew who had a car, credit cards and a checking account, even though he wasn’t old enough yet to have a driver’s license.

Martin, who had attended only private schools, told his father at the end of his 9th grade year at Pensacola School of Liberal Arts that he wanted to transfer to a public school — Washington High.

‘‘I told him, ‘Are you crazy? You’ll never fit in,’” said Fred.

Martin became president of the student body and all-district in soccer, and was voted most likely to succeed.

‘‘Martin’s color-blind,’’ said Valerie Thompson, a Washington classmate. ‘‘I’m an African-American, and there aren’t many people I would describe that way. Martin was so kind and generous and open to everybody. He was liked by all kinds of people.’’

Thompson saw Martin at their 10th high school reunion, and he told her that if she ever needed help to let him know. Two years ago, when she decided to change careers and go to law school, she wrote Martin.

‘‘He got back to me right away and has been so willing to help me out,’’ she said. ‘‘Someone had told me that he had graduated at the top of his class at Florida (law school). So I asked him how he did it. He told me how he would spend his weekends outlining classes. Martin’s just a very disciplined and focused person. He has really helped me a lot.’’

After Washington High School, Martin went to California to attend Stanford University. He graduated in the top of his class and enrolled at the University of Florida law school. Martin graduated No. 1 in his class.

‘‘I think Martin had the lowest SAT score of anyone to be admitted to Stanford,’’ said Fred. ‘‘But he graduated in the top of his class. I realize this is a father speaking about his son, but I bet his I.Q. is no more than average. Martin just works harder than anyone I have ever known.’’

LEARNING THE LEGAL ROPES

Martin joined his father’s law firm in 1989 and turned to Mark Proctor, then a young attorney who had become an associate partner, to learn the ropes of the firm.

‘‘Martin worked all the time,’’ said Proctor. ‘‘He was at the firm seven days a week, just like his daddy. And when he joined the firm, father and son developed a very close and deep professional alliance.

‘‘You unleashed Fred and Martin Levin on someone, and it was a very, very powerful combination.’’

‘‘Dad and I became best friends when I came to the law firm,’’ said Martin. ‘‘He and I would go to lunch every day together.

‘‘We would talk to each other throughout the day, and then we would call each other once we got home. It got to the point where my wife would say, ‘Why do you need to call your dad after you’ve talked to him all day?’

‘‘There’s no way you can describe the incredible opportunity and joy that it means to be able to work with your father for 13 years as a colleague.’’

Papantonio, one of the firm’s 16 partners, watched Martin grow as a young attorney, and the two became very close. Papantonio said he was not drawn to Martin because he was turning out to be such a good attorney, but because Martin was one of the most decent people he had ever met.

‘‘Everybody is so cynical about the whole Levin thing,’’ said Papantonio. ‘‘It’s like Martin has never been evaluated by who he is. People begin with the preconceived notion that he is the Levin kid, and yet he is one of the hardest-working and most decent people I have ever known.

‘‘Sure, he comes from an affluent family. But I’m always a little put out when I hear somebody comment that Martin has had all of these advantages, and that’s why he’s successful. It doesn’t work that way. Martin is successful because he’s head and shoulders above everybody else.’’

‘‘The law takes a tremendous toll on people,’’ said Papantonio. ‘‘They get into the law for one reason, and the practicality of (being an attorney) is that they end up practicing law in a way they didn’t intend to.

‘‘Martin came into the practice of law honestly, from the standpoint that he wanted to serve people. But he did not like the process of lawyering. He became good at it. His record shows that. But it took a toll on him.’’

Martin’s wife saw the toll more than anyone.

‘‘It became a situation where he was mentally and emotionally burned out by the system,’’ said Terri. ‘‘The war, the everyday battle with opposing attorneys. Just fighting on the phone; every day, fighting, fighting, fighting. It’s draining. It wears on you.

‘‘Everywhere he turned there seemed to be greed — the greed of clients who wanted more and more money; the greed of defense attorneys and insurance companies who didn’t want to part with money. Greed was everywhere.’’

‘‘I would have to add myself to that list,’’ said Martin. ‘‘I started to question my motives: ‘Am I doing this for my financial gain? Am I part of this greed?’

‘‘It became harder for me to say, ‘No, I’m one of the good guys, I’m not one of the bad guys.’ That was killing me.

‘‘Unfortunately, our advocacy system of law has lost the search for truth. It’s like, why can’t we just sit down and gather the facts and all of us be reasonable people, and with the help of an impartial third party search for the truth and determine what’s right?

‘‘Instead, the law has become a game of manipulation, dishonesty and fights. For more than 13 years, it consumed me. But for two years, I didn’t leave because I didn’t know where to go. Terri said that I couldn’t just leave to leave. I had to have some kind of purpose, and it was Terri who said one day, ‘What about God?’ ”

‘WHAT ABOUT GOD’

Martin grew up in a Jewish household. He spent time at the synagogue in elementary school as he studied for his bar mitzvah, but by high school he visited the synagogue maybe a couple times a year for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

Terri grew up Catholic. She went to Mass with her family often as a child. But by the time she became a teenager, she started spending less and less time at church. When she and Martin started dating, she had stopped attending Mass altogether.

As Martin grew more and more disillusioned with the law, he and Terri started attending services at Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church with Papantonio and his wife, also named Terri.

‘‘I’m always bothered by people who say they experienced some type of mystical silver-bullet conversion,’’ said Papantonio. ‘‘Anyone who has really thought about spirituality realizes it doesn’t happen that way.

‘‘In order to really build some sense of spirituality, you have to work at it. You don’t wake up and, boom, someone lays a hand on your head and all of a sudden you see it all. Martin was just the opposite of that.

‘‘He actually engaged in the process, step by step, trying to improve his notion of spirituality. The concept that you become what you think is so true with Martin and religion.

‘‘It really began with him spending hours at Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital. Most people can’t go there because they can’t confront that, but he would spend hours there. He would spend hours at the children’s hospital, and it made him a more caring and giving person.

‘‘That was the beginning of Martin’s spirituality.’’

In Martin’s 13 years as an attorney, he represented more than 100 people who had lost someone. Many were parents who had lost children, or their children had been burned or crippled. And sometimes he had clients who were terminally ill.

‘‘I felt inept talking with them about the meaning of life or the afterlife,’’ said Martin. ‘‘That’s what made me start paying more attention to religion. I’ve always been interested in religion, but I had never studied it. I had never read the Bible.

‘‘And, in the practice of law, you see people at their worst rather than their best. Terminally ill children have such a better ability to handle adversity, true adversity, than adults. I started to learn from that.’’

Sister Jean Rhoads, vice president of mission services at Sacred Heart Health System, and Melba Darden, administrative director of children’s services, introduced Martin to the world of terminally ill children. They took him on a tour of the facility, where Martin met some of the children and their families. And after his tour, Martin kept coming back to the hospital to visit children regularly.

‘‘Not everybody can talk to kids, particularly children who are sick and dying,’’ said Darden. ‘‘But Martin had that ability. He could make them smile. You don’t see that with everybody. He had this natural connection with kids and their families.’’

Sister Jean saw another connection.

‘‘I could see the Lord was using Martin as an instrument,’’ she said.

Sister Jean said the hospital staff and other people were impressed by how well Martin connected with the children, how he could talk to them and play with them. But Sister Jean said something else was at play.

The children were connecting with Martin. And so was the Lord.

‘‘Martin has a servant’s heart,’’ said Sister Jean. ‘‘He has an unusual, single-hearted desire to help people in need. It would be quite natural for him to be distracted by the high-society living and money. For whatever reason, Martin is not.

‘‘He is very focused on his call to help make other people’s lives better. He is truly an instrument of the Lord.

‘‘That may be difficult for some people to understand. But the Lord picked Martin. For those of us of faith, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not have faith, no explanation is possible.’’

SIGNS OF TRANSFORMATION

Martin’s father was one of the first people to notice the difference in his son.

Then Fred noticed his son visiting a lot of churches – Gulf Breeze United Methodist, Olive Baptist and Zion Hope.

‘‘I couldn’t figure out what he was up to. One Sunday he went to Christ Episcopal Church, and he said to me, ‘It’s a really nice church, Dad.’

Although Fred could not figure out why his son was suddenly interested in Christianity and attending church on Sundays, Papantonio said he knew exactly what Martin was up to.

‘‘People forget to grow. But not Martin,’’ Papantonio said. ‘‘He had decided he couldn’t grow anymore as long as he was practicing law. So he turned to religion.’’

Martin’s wife said that for two years, her husband thought about what he wanted to do with his life. She and Martin started to travel. On their trips, they would talk about God and religion.

‘‘It just seemed obvious to me that was where his passion was going,’’ said Terri. ‘‘So one day, I suggested that he take some courses in religion — you know, like PJC (Pensacola Junior College).’’

The next thing she knew, Martin had applied to Harvard Divinity School.

‘‘It was like a light bulb,’’ said Martin. ‘‘I had never really read the Bible. So I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right.’ That night I came home, sat at my computer and over the next three weeks, I started looking at different programs.

‘‘The one at Harvard Divinity School just looked like it was written for me. I decided that was where I wanted to go. So I applied, got accepted, and I’ve never looked back.’’

Well, maybe once, when he learned he had been accepted to Harvard and realized he needed to tell his father.

‘‘That was hard,’’ Martin said. ‘‘But Dad was great. So was everyone else. Not one person has questioned my decision. I’ve never had one person say: Don’t do it.’’

His father, however, said he thought about it a couple of times.

‘‘You know,’’ said Fred, ‘‘there just aren’t a lot of jobs for Jewish divinity students.’’

School offers valuable lesson in man’s contemplation of God

Martin Levin says his journey from being a high-profile attorney to a Harvard divinity student has been a remarkable life experience.

“The past year at divinity school has been absolutely amazing. I have had the opportunity to study under some of the most brilliant professors I have ever encountered,” Levin said.

“Last year I intensely studied the Hebrew Bible and Christian theology. I had the opportunity to study the words of some of the most renowned theologians who have lived during the past 2,500 years. And I was able to study some of the texts written in the Ancient Near East that date back 3,000 to 5,000 years.

“One of the main things that I have learned is that humans have been contemplating the existence and nature of God and the purpose of life for as long as people have been able to communicate with one another.

“Many of the things we argue about today are the same arguments we had 2,500 years ago. The bottom line is that the existence, nature and essence of God cannot be proven through science or deductive reasoning.

“Some of the most intelligent individuals who have lived over the past 2,500 years have spent much of their lives on this issue, and yet none have been able to come up with an argument that would convince a non-believer that God exists or that God’s essence is perfection.

“Attempts to prove the existence and nature of God through deductive reasoning have not only proved futile, but such idle speculation has led to a confused understanding and false image of God and religious persecution.

“The choice to believe in God or not to believe is very personal and based on infinite variables. I personally choose to believe in God and God’s perfection based on faith, not based on conclusive proof.

“Throughout history, including what the world is going through right now, we have witnessed many acts of hatred, prejudice and violence performed in the name of religion.

“One of the reasons for this is that the Bible, when misused, can provide a basis for many immoral acts, including the persecution of people with different beliefs and customs.

“It all depends on what verses of the Bible an individual or group wishes to accept and to ignore. It also depends on the motives of the individuals or groups, and the limits, if any, they are willing to impose on the accomplishment of their goals.

“In the past year, I have not discovered the universal meaning of life. I now realize we are not meant to know this. I believe that we are simply supposed to realize that we are all living in one small world and have an obligation to respect and assist one another.

“We are supposed to be tolerant and understanding of others, especially those with divergent beliefs and customs.

“The only definite truth is that our lives here are limited, and we should choose to accept the fact that we are all different. We all have our limitations and flaws, and we all have our gifts.

“No one is perfect, or even close to it. We can choose to be consumed with animosity and hatred, or we can learn to appreciate that we are all one in God’s eyes, even though God takes different forms in each person’s eyes.

“God’s message (whether in the form of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) is universal. We are all unique and all have something important to offer. Each person, each group, each nation is but one piece of the puzzle. It is only when all pieces come together that the true image of God can be seen and understood. Once we begin to accept this and practice this, the world will become a peaceful and pleasant place, and life will have meaning.”

MUCH MORE FULFILLING

On a late afternoon in the dead of a Boston winter, Martin kissed his wife, threw on a coat and headed to class.

About 25 students gathered in a lecture hall for a course on ethics and morals taught by Arthur Dyck, one of the nation’s foremost ethicists.

Most of the students slumped in their chairs, feet sprawled in front of them and their heads cocked lazily to the side as they jotted notes. Some had their eyes closed and weren’t taking notes at all.

‘‘Questions,’’ said Professor Dyck.

One hand went up — Martin’s.

‘‘Isn’t it man’s capacity for justice that makes democracy even possible?’’ asked Martin.

‘‘Yes,’’ said Professor Dyck. ‘‘But it’s man’s capacity for injustice that makes it necessary.

‘‘You see, it’s love that makes justice possible. But love is also the impossible impossibility. What we get instead of justice is love under the conditions of sin.’’

Six times throughout Professor Dyck’s two-hour lecture, a hand went up to ask a question. Five times it was Martin’s. Only one other student in the Harvard class raised a hand.

‘‘I just love it. Going to school now is so much more fulfilling than when I was young,’’ said Martin. ‘‘I really want to be here. I really want to learn. I’ve never been so eager to do as good of a job in school as I am now. But I’m less concerned about grades.

‘‘In law school, I’d do the least amount possible to get the best grade. I would do what I was told, what I was assigned to do.

‘‘Now it’s the opposite. I do more extra reading on the topic than I do the assigned reading.’’

Harvard divinity students must take an exam in a foreign language before they can graduate. David Zuniga and Martin took Spanish and studied together for the exam.

‘‘We took the tests in January,’’ said Zuniga. “There were 24 of us, and only 11 passed. Martin and I were two of the 11, and he did better than me.

‘‘Honestly, he was the top student in the class.’’

Zuniga described Martin as a nice, unassuming guy who blended in at Harvard.

‘‘I didn’t know until the end of the class what an accomplished lawyer he was. A lot of people come to Harvard for second careers. Or they’re on a spiritual path.

‘‘Harvard Divinity School is maybe the most diverse divinity school in the country. People from all over the world and every religion come here.

‘‘I asked Martin one time what he was going to do after school. He said he didn’t know. I don’t think Martin is here for a second career. He’s here on a personal mission of spiritual fulfillment.’’

The emotionally and physically burned out son that so worried his father two years ago has disappeared.

‘‘I’ve never seen Martin so happy,’’ said Fred. ‘‘He told me it was the most fascinating experience of his life. He just loves it at Harvard.’’

Even though Martin was in Boston from last August to June, he and his father talked on the telephone daily. In March, Fred flew to Boston, and the two gave a father-and-son lecture before the Harvard Law School.

‘‘Martin is so happy up there,’’ said Papantonio. ‘‘I think he’s rubbing off on his dad. I think he’s gotten his dad to even start reading the Bible.’’

Martin, however, said it’s the other way around: His father has rubbed off on him.

‘‘Dad gave a half million dollars to Kid’s House and $300,000 to the Miracle Camp,’’ said Martin. ‘‘But he did it in my mother’s name.

‘‘He doesn’t want people to know about this side of him. He thinks compassion and kindness make a lawyer look weak. So he does things that make him look like a complete jerk.

‘‘But you talk to people he has represented and they will tell you no one has ever worked harder for them. Dad taught me how to be loyal and supportive of people. A reason I’m so happy at Harvard is that my father has been totally supportive and calls me several times a day just to ask me how I’m doing and what I’m learning.’’

A NEW OUTLOOK

Another reason for Martin’s happiness is Dustin Matthew Levin.

In April, nearly 14 years after they started dating and after eight years of marriage, Terri and Martin had their first child.

‘‘For a long time, I didn’t think I wanted to bring a child into this world,’’ said Martin. ‘‘The problem with the law is that you see people at their worst rather than their best. I was so disillusioned, I couldn’t see having children.’’

Although Martin couldn’t see himself as a father, many of his friends could. Three years ago, Virginia Buchanan asked Martin to be the godfather of her child, Emma.

‘‘I have photos of Martin holding my daughter, and you can see the sweetness in him,’’ said Buchanan, a law school classmate and attorney in the Levin and Papantonio firm.

‘‘He was just very tender and sweet and looked so natural holding her. I said to Martin, ‘You’ve got to have one of these.’ ”

But Martin was dead set against he and Terri having children, recalled Buchanan.

‘‘He was so mentally and physically unhappy for a while,’’ said Buchanan. ‘‘I remember getting e-mails from Martin and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, Martin, you’re at the office at five in the morning. But it’s Saturday.’

‘‘The way Martin worked, it didn’t leave him any room for children. He worked so hard for his clients and the firm. When you think about it, Martin — because he’s Fred Levin’s son — could have been average or mediocre, and no one would have thought anything about it.

‘‘But Martin never takes anything for granted. And I could see the work taking a toll on him. I knew he was doing some soul searching. He was trying to figure out what was his place in the world. I told him he needed to have a baby to figure that out.’’

Martin laughed and said that was so true.

‘‘A baby gives you a whole new outlook on the world,’’ he said. ‘‘I love being a daddy.’’

Perhaps no one was happier about this change in Martin than his wife.

‘‘I’ve never seen him happier in his life than he is about this baby,’’ said Terri. ‘‘I’ve watched Martin shift his priorities in the world. Spending time with his family is more the priority now. It’s quite thrilling and exhilarating for me to watch.’’

Will you become a priest?

Martin returned to Pensacola in late June for his 20th high school reunion and to finish a case he started working on before he left for divinity school. Four weeks ago, a jury awarded Martin’s client, Mo Money, $3.6 million in a case against Gateway Computer. Gateway had offered $10,000.

Before heading back to school at Harvard next week, Martin and Terri have been visiting family and friends and showing off the baby.

‘‘The number one question I’ve been asked by everyone is whether I am becoming a priest,’’ said Martin. ‘‘My father, my uncle — that was their first question. Because when you hear the word divinity school, you associate it with seminary school.”

‘‘It’s just a misconception. I can’t tell you how many people in Pensacola honestly believe I’ve converted from Judaism.’’

He hasn’t. But...

‘‘I am Jewish because I was born Jewish, not because I find Judaism more accurate or superior to the beliefs of other religions. I find Judaism as one of the many vital pieces in attempting to grasp the magnitude and greatness of God.

‘‘If I had been born Christian, then I would be Christian today, because Christianity is also one of the crucial pieces to understanding God. If I had been born a member of a religion other than Judaism or Christianity, then I would still be a member of that religion as long as that religion preaches equality, love, compassion and generosity.

‘‘It is my belief that the world must possess practitioners of diverse faiths in order for any of us to have even a miniscule understanding of God. We are all but one very small piece of a gigantic puzzle. We should not be so arrogant and selfish to think that our single piece of the puzzle is the puzzle itself. We should learn to appreciate, respect and admire our differences; rather than to despise these differences.

‘‘Terri and I will raise our son in the Jewish tradition. But as soon as our son is old enough to understand Biblical concepts, we will expose him to all religions and allow him to choose his religion if he can.’’

The exposure to other religions is one of the things Martin enjoyed most about his first year at Harvard. His courses last year focused on Christian theology, Buddhism, ethics and the Hebrew Bible. This year he will take a heavy course load in the New Testament and Islam.

The past year, however, was perhaps more marked by what Martin didn’t learn.

‘‘I didn’t discover the universal answer to the meaning of life.’’

But he did grow closer to God.

‘‘I didn’t go to Harvard to find God. I went so I could better understand God. This is something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.’’

A PROUD MOTHER

Martin, Terri and Dusty will return to Boston on Monday. During his summer break, Martin bounced around a lot of ideas about what he will do after divinity school. He has thought about teaching, working with injured or terminally ill children, staying in school for another degree, or going to work for a foundation or an organization such as Shriner’s Children’s Hospital or the March of Dimes.

‘‘I want to make sure that whatever I do that my mother is proud,’’ said Martin. ‘‘Whatever compassion I have came from my mother. No matter how trying my mother’s illnesses were for her, she was always there for me.’’

Marilyn Levin said her son didn’t need to worry about what she thought of him. She has always been proud.

‘‘I was shocked that Martin decided to do this,’’ she said of Martin going to divinity school. ‘‘But I am so glad. It gives me, well, peace.’’

While Martin was a teenager, Marilyn’s declining health led to problems with alcohol and painkillers.

‘‘As a family, we’ve had our share of ecstasy and agony,’’ she said.

But Martin’s decision to work with charities and go to divinity school has been one of her life’s great ecstasies.

Marilyn grew up in Palm Beach, where her family owned a small grocery store. Her mother sewed and made all of Marilyn’s clothes. In college, a ‘‘cocky’’ Fred Levin talked her into coming to Pensacola to visit his parents.

‘‘Fred’s mother bought me my first store-bought dress,’’ said Marilyn.

‘‘You see, I didn’t have much. I wanted to give back to the world the only thing I thought I could. And that was my children. I raised my children for society.’’

Fred Levin looked at his wife as if he were back in college and seeing her for the first time in his life.

‘‘She did a good job, didn’t she?’’ said Fred.

After one year at Harvard Divinity School, Martin Levin has made — that’s right — straight A’s.

Foundation’s hands-on approach source of inspiration

When the folks from The Levin & Papantonio Family Foundation decide to donate, it’s not a matter of sending a check from on high.

They get their hands dirty.

When they helped Habitat for Humanity, foundation founders Martin Levin and Mike Papantonio went out to the home sites, hammers in hand and took staff members of their Levin, Papantonio law firm with them.

When they decided to donate shoes to kids who needed them, Levin and Papantonio plunged up to their elbows in sneakers and sorted out sizes.

While the foundation donated more than half a million dollars to Northwest Florida organizations last year, its hands-on approach to helping in the community made it the winner for Outstanding Philanthropic Organization at this year’s National Philanthropy Day awards.

The power of the foundation is not only in what it does, but also in the way it inspires others to get involved, said Kenda Hilleke, Resource Development Specialist for the Escambia County Council on Aging.

‘‘The spirit of generosity and the spirit of caring in the people who implemented that foundation is contagious,’’ said Hilleke, who nominated the foundation for this year’s award. The Council on Aging received a substantial foundation donation, which it used to help four clients drastically improve their lives.

The Levin & Papantonio Family Foundation primarily helps organizations concerned with children’s welfare. The initial focus was education, but the scope has expanded over the years.

This year the foundation made large donations to Loaves and Fishes, Habitat for Humanity and Escambia Westgate Center, which provides special education to disabled children in Northwest Florida. The foundation pledged $500,000 to Gulf Coast Kid’s House, a nonprofit group building a child abuse facility in Northwest Florida.

The giving is contagious, said Martin Levin, who recently began studies at the Harvard School of Divinity and is working toward his master’s degree in theological studies.

‘‘Once you start giving, it becomes so habit-forming that you can’t stop and you want to give more and more and more,’’ he said.

‘‘The joy that you see when you have given children shoes, or given a family a meal or watching very, very ill children have a ray of hope because they communicate with someone who has the same illness — it makes you want to contribute more money.’’

Papantonio also is heavily involved in the preservation of the integrity of local waters, donating his own time and money and recruiting others to help with the cause.

Foundation executive director Flack Logan is also personally involved in the YMCA and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, United Way of Escambia County and Lincoln Park Elementary School, as a mentor.

Martin Levin’s father, Fred Levin, said the family spirit of hands-on good deeds probably came from his own mother, who would rankle downtown parking police by feeding other people’s parking meters literally one step ahead of the law.

‘‘We were just raised that way I guess,’’ said Fred Levin, who heads the powerful Levin law firm. ‘‘Try to do the best you can for others.’’

Martin Levin and Papantonio have put their good intentions into actions, he added, and Fred Levin is proud of them both.

‘‘Having the ability to give is one thing,’’ said the senior Levin. ‘‘The other part of that is the desire and the willingness, and that’s where the division occurs.’’

A DIVINITY STUDENT GOES BACK TO COURT

Most students view the summer as a time to relax. But Martin Levin, a litigator turned Harvard Divinity School student saw it as an opportunity to chalk up a $3.6 million win against Gateway Inc.

The unexpected return to the courtroom for the former president of Pensacola, Fla.’s Levin Papantonio began when he came back to Florida with his family for summer break.

He decided to take the case of his friend, Cliff Mowe, whose business, Mo’ Money Associates Inc., was suffering because of a technological mishap.

Gateway Computers listed one of its customer-service numbers as (800) 874-7681 – Mo’ Money’s telephone number – instead of Gateway’s actual number, (888) 874-7681.

This mistake was detrimental to Mo’ Money, a manufacturer of promotional items for companies.

Levin asserted that Mo’ Money was making less money because its customers could never contact the store. He asked the jury for $8.7 million. This figure was based on past and future losses.

COMPETITION CITED

Barry Richards of Greenberg Traurig’s Tallahassee, Fla., office, the lawyer for Gateway, asserted that Mo’ Money lost money because of increasing competition.

“Gateway admitted they made a mistake, and they attempted to fix the problem,” he said, “Unfortunately, because of some technical problems, they had a difficult time in tracking down the source of the error.” As a result, Mo’ Money continued to receive misdirected phone calls almost 2 ½ years after the problem began.

$3.7M AWARD

In the end, the jury fount in favor of Mo’ Money and awarded it $3.7 million. Though Levin is pleased with his return victory, the decision to put on his litigator’s suit once again did not come easily.

Beginning in 1996, Levin, 37, became disenchanted with the adversarial process. “I started having difficulty drawing the line between my obligations to zealously represent my clients, and my obligation to honor my oath as an officer of the court,” he recalled.

After putting in 15-hour days at Levin Papantonio he had had enough. He wanted to stop practicing law, but he was not in a financial position to walk away. But in 1999, Levin could finally afford to make a career change, following his participation in the legal settlement against the tobacco companies. State of Florida v. American Tobacco co., No. CL-95-1466-AH (Palm Beach County, Fla., Cir. Ct.)

Levin said that although he is not a religious man, he always had an interest in religion. His wife, Terri, suggested that he take courses in religion, which immediately piqued his curiosity.

After doing some research into various schools, he decided to apply to Harvard Divinity School and in January 2001 he entered the master’s program.

THE “RIGHT MOVE”

Levin said he’s confident that he made the right move. “Since I have commenced my studies, I have not questioned a single decision I have made,” he said.

He enjoys his new focus on religion, and has managed to integrate his legal background into his studies. Many of his papers, for example, center on legal issues in religion.

Though Levin enjoyed being back in the courtroom, he said that he will only pick up around one case a year and it “has to be something I really believe in.”

Once he completes the master’s program, Levin sees himself becoming a law professor. He believes that teaching will allow him to integrate his legal background with his religious expertise.
 


Related Attorney Profiles