2005-03-02—Dan Walker— R.M. Levy
have a saying that "there's a Jewish story everywhere" but who would
have thought that it would take a former governor of
Illinois to put me on the search for one right in my own back yard in San
Diego County, California.
long ago I was reading Thirst for
Independence: The San Diego Water Story, by Dan Walker, who had grown up
in the Encanto neighborhood of San
Diego before moving to Illinois where a career in the law and politics led
to his serving as that state's governor.
leaving office, Walker became a principal in a savings and loan association, and
engaged in what the federal government contended were illegal loan practices.
After pleading guilty, Walker spent 18 months of a 7-year-sentence at a minimum-
security prison in Duluth, Minn. He
decided to rebuild his life in his boyhood San Diego County, where he has been
redeeming his reputation by writing solid books of local interest.
met Walker at a party for authors thrown by our mutual publisher, Sunbelt
Publications of El
Cajon. We exchanged books—I being quite pleased that Walker was interested
in reading my Louis Rose: San Diego's First Jewish Settler. Reading
Walker’s book resulted in my learning about the various dams on San Diego
County rivers, our county's dependence on imported water from the Colorado and
Feather Rivers, and—not surprisingly, given the background of the author—some
of the behind-the-scenes forces governing the politics of water.
page 88, I was startled to read that in the Helix Water District—which old
timers know as the former La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley Irrigation
District— "all water goes through the district's $50 million
state-of-the-art R.M. Levy Treatment Plant at Lakeside
that uses the advanced ozonation process to improve taste and color."
state and federal standards for quality and safety are met and the plant's
capacity is 106 million gallons per day," Walker wrote.
"The San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architects
recently granted its coveted Orchid Award to the plant as an outstanding
Environmental Solutions Project. The plant is hailed not just for its physical appearance but
also for being the first in San Diego County to provide such clean,
fresh-tasting, ozone-treated water that there is, as the boosters say, 'no need
to lug jugs of bottled water home anymore.'"
had thought that I knew of all the Jews for whom public buildings in San Diego
County had been named. "Levy, who was Levy?"
Breece, public relations director at the Helix Water District, told me R.M.
"Rube" Levy had been a longtime director of the district, a man who
had led a colorful life before he died in a 1959 traffic accident during a
hunting trip in Imperial County. At
one time, he had played professional baseball, she understood.
directed me to Bob Friedgen, a former general manager of the Helix Water Distict,
who added that Levy's father, Henry, had owned Levy's Hardware Store in La
Mesa. Friedgen said he thought,
but could not be certain, that the Levys were members of the Jewish community;
that prior to World War I, Levy had played second base perhaps in the Detroit
Tigers organization, and that Levy had won medals for his World War I military
exploits in Europe.
in turn, referred me to Norrie West, a retired journalist and sports publicist,
who recalled that as a 17-year-old in 1933 he bought his first baseball glove at
Levy Hardware, located on what then was called Lookout Avenue, and today is
known as La Mesa Boulevard. He also
remembered that a principal of Grossmont High School, Carl Quicksall, had been
gravely injured in the accident in which Levy had died. He recalled that Levy,
then 70, apparently fell asleep at the wheel.
Engstrand, a retired principal of the law firm of Jennings Engstrand and
Henrikson, which represented the Helix Water District, remembered that Levy was
a strong water board chairman, who when running a meeting, “kept on top of
things.” Levy at one point became
an advocate for putting a traffic signal on La Mesa Boulevard—and when he
heard that a decision would be based upon traffic counts—“drove back and
forth over that route all afternoon to get the count up,” Engstrand
also called George Bailey, the former mayor of La Mesa who later became a member
of the county Board
of Supervisors, but Bailey, alas, couldn't recall much more about Levy.
La Mesa's current mayor, Art Madrid, only knew him by name, and some
longtime members of Tifereth
Israel Synagogue, the San Diego congregation closest to La Mesa, also
couldn't remember Levy. As a point of interest, however, I did learn that the La
Mesa neighborhood in which Levy had resided had been named "Mount
Nebo" by the developers—making me wonder if they considered the area
between their mount and the Pacific Ocean to be the western "Promised
phone and email, I put out queries about R.M. "Rube" Levy to baseball
and military historians, to the Jewish
Historical Society of San Diego, the San Diego Jewish Genealogical Society,
Jewish War Veterans and to various longtime residents.
I waited for a break—something that would definitively tie Levy to San Diego's
Jewish community, other than his surname—I learned from a CD thoughtfully sent
to me by Breece what makes the R.M. Levy Water Treatment Plant near Lake
Jennings so special. Built about
four years after Levy's death, it more recently underwent modernization.
The "ozonation" process that Governor Walker mentioned involves
passing electricity through oxygen to create ozone and then injecting that gas
into the water supply. Highly
reactive, the ozone bonds with various organisms that might be in the water,
forming solids that can be filtered out of the water.
Ozonation is followed by chlorination.
Berman of the San Diego Jewish Genealogical Society subsequently messaged me
that a Reuben Martin Levy, whose birth and death dates matched those of the man
I was seeking, was buried in plot S 1268 at Fort
Rosecrans National Cemetery, and that after serving as a 2nd lieutenant in
the infantry, he had been demobilized at Camp Kearny, California.
genealogical records found by Berman indicated that Levy’s mother's maiden
name was Wingate. Given that Wingate is not usually a Jewish name (but then
again, neither is my surname "Harrison"), I wondered whether Levy
perhaps had been the child or descendant of an inter-marriage, who was raised outside the
Jewish religion. This might account for why he was so unknown in the Jewish
phone call to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery substantiated this hypothesis.
Delia Fernandez, noting that Levy's gravesite was not far from her office
at the cemetery, took a quick walk outside to look it over.
According to the markings on the stone, Levy had won the Distinguished
Service Cross and the Silver Star during his World War I service.
The religious icon on his stone was a Christian cross.
after all that, I had to wonder had I really been embarked on a “Jewish”
story? Yes, I decided, but the story in
question wasn’t Levy’s. Instead,
it was a story about the interesting byways one can travel in the process of
Jewish historical research.