Nobody loved the holidays more than Dean Levi. And the longtime newspaperman's Christmas Eve bash on Church Hill, at his East Franklin Street home, was the highlight for him. Immediately following the party, after too many ham biscuits and bourbons, those still standing would drive downtown or to the Fan for candlelight services at St. Paul's or Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal churches.
But the bon vivant didn't make it to the big day this year. Levi died on Dec. 19 after a long illness. He was 71.
A native of Berryville, Levi joined the Richmond News Leader, an afternoon paper, in 1958. He worked there until his retirement in 1991. His beat for most of his career was writing about the weather, including coverage when the James flooded. He also wrote a long-running column entitled "Bygone Years," which required him regularly to scour the newspaper's morgue for reminders of what happened locally 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
History fascinated him. Hailing from the Winchester area, stomping ground of the political Byrd family, Levi had come of age in the thick of the legendary Byrd machine. But Levi was highly inquisitive, and the latest goings-on fascinated him as much as the past. Although he worked for the editorially right-wing News Leader, he was a fixture at parties at the Richmond Mercury, a maverick weekly newspaper that, in the early 1970s, unflinchingly tweaked the system. After retirement, he resurrected his "Bygone Years" column in The Richmond State, a former weekly.
Whether in casual conversation or during a formal interview, the elfin Levi locked eyes and he listened intently. If the responses interested him he would respond with a long, drawn-out, distinctly Southern "GAWD!" If he really liked what he was hearing, his response would be "Gawd, boy!" or "Gawd, girl."
Levi was a natty dresser. While that is an oxymoron (he was a journalist), in the summer months he always looked sharp in khaki-colored, cotton suits. Always preppy, in cooler seasons he was partial to sweaters. But when he was at home, his most consistent accessory was an oversized plastic University of Virginia orange-and-blue cup: It was seldom empty.
In addition to being familiar to thousands of readers, Dean Levi relished playing the role of "mayor" of his neighborhood, the historic district of Church Hill. Around 1962, when the neighborhood was dilapidated and considered beyond hope by many of the powers-that-be, Levi was one of a handful of intrepid, adventuresome types who moved over to the hill at the urging of Louise Catterall and Elisabeth Scott Bocock and other formidable preservationists. For almost 40 years he watched the local comings and goings, welcoming newcomers into his sprawling and handsomely furnished 19th-century home, knowing who was dating whom. "If he didn't know something about the neighborhood, he made it his business to find out," said an old friend. "He kept tabs on things almost to the end." If urban neighborhoods have many eyes on the street, giving these places a heightened sense of security, them Levi's gaze will be missed indeed.
And while Dean Levi didn't live to see another Christmas, the party went on nonetheless. It's just that the order of things was reversed: After the well-attended funeral service at St. Paul's on Dec. 22, friends and former colleagues filed into the parish house for a party, provided for, and by instructions of, the deceased. "There were ham biscuits," says one friend, "and good wine, really fine wine. It was just like Christmas Eve."
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