Never Afraid to Do the Right Thing

DR. GERALD S. LEVEY
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7 min read

THERE IS A PHOTOGRAPH of Gerald S. Levey, MD, that opens a window to the heart of the leader who took charge of UCLA’s medical enterprise eight months after the devastating Northridge earthquake and launched what then was the single largest building project ever undertaken by the University of California — construction of an entirely new and thoroughly modern hospital. In the picture, Dr. Levey, who died June 25, 2021, at the age of 84, is at a grill flipping burgers during an annual barbecue for incoming medical students, a white cowboy hat on his head and an apron around his waist. He is looking directly into the camera, a playful smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

That cowboy hat and quiet smile tell it all. Dr. Levey was a man of abundant humor, a raconteur prone to telling long-winded stories that often left him wheezing with laughter before he reached the punchline. He enjoyed telling jokes so much that, while in college, he considered becoming a standup comic rather than a doctor.

This is how colleagues who worked with him during the 15-plus years of his deanship have described him: warm, fiercely intelligent, kind, decisive and eager for action, a leader who cared deeply for his colleagues, hospital staff and medical students, always making them feel they were a part of something larger than themselves. He loved to hear other people’s stories, so it's not surprising that his two favorite musical genres were opera and country; in both cases, the songs tell tales.

Alan G. Robinson, MD, a now-retired senior administrator who worked with Dr. Levey at both the University of Pittsburgh, where Dr. Levey had been chair of medicine, and UCLA, remembers walking into Dr. Levey’s office one day to talk about a potentially contentious issue with one of the laboratories. Dr. Levey looked up from his computer, Dr. Robinson recalls, and “I described the issue and explained the corrective action that I tried to take. He listened to the story, and when I finished, he paused a moment and said, ‘Alan, never be afraid to do the right thing.’ That was the way Jerry lived his life: If his decisions always were to ‘do the right thing,’ then he wasn’t afraid of the consequences.”

Doing the right thing positioned Dr. Levey’s tenure to be one of remarkable achievement. It is a span of years that was crowned by the construction and opening of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center to replace the 1950s-era UCLA Medical Center hospital, which was badly damaged in the Northridge quake; securing of a $200 million endowment to the medical school from entertainment executive David Geffen, a gift that Dr. Levey said “absolutely changed the history of the medical school”; and the catapulting of the hospital and medical school into the top echelon of U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings.

DR. GERALD S. LEVEY

UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block recalls his fondest memory of Dr. Levey. It was during their first one-on-one meeting after he became chancellor, in 2007, already 13 years into Dr. Levey’s tenure. “Before we talked all things UCLA, he carefully removed from his wallet pictures of his grandchildren,” Chancellor Block says. “That is where we started our relationship — Jerry chatting proudly about his grandchildren.”

There was, of course, much more to Dr. Levey than just the proud parent, grandfather and devoted husband who nurtured an enduring 58-year marriage to his wife, Barbara. “It is impossible to say in a short time what Jerry Levey means to UCLA,” Chancellor Block says. “He left us with a state-of-the-art hospital, an endowed medical school, five new research buildings and 100 endowed chairs. Many generations will reap the benefit of his vision, leadership and dedication.”

But buildings were only part of the picture. “Jerry didn’t focus exclusively on buildings; he knew that a successful enterprise is built on talented, dedicated people,” says John C. Mazziotta, MD (RES ’81, FEL ’83), PhD, vice chancellor of health sciences and CEO of UCLA Health. “He invested in recruiting and mentoring excellent people. Everyone at UCLA benefitted from his vision and ability to lead.”

Having a clear vision was at the core of Dr. Levey’s approach to leadership. Leonard Rome, PhD, was vice chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry and a member of the search committee for the new dean of the medical school. “We asked Dr. Sherman Mellinkoff, who had served for 24 years as the second dean of the school of medicine, what was the main job of a dean,” Dr. Rome recalls. “Sherm said it was ‘to make the dreams of the medical school faculty come true.’ That guidance perfectly fit Dr. Levey’s vision of leadership and led us to recommend him for the position.”

Dr. Levey had long desired to lead a major academic medical center. He arrived at UCLA in September 1994 from Merck & Co., where he had been senior vice president for medical and scientific affairs, with the sense that this was “a dream come true and the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“I soon came to realize, however, that the job I accepted would not be exactly the job I had expected,” he recalled in a Leadership letter published in this magazine in 2009, before his retirement the next year. “The job description and discussions leading up to taking the position hadn’t really contemplated the extent of the damage that was inflicted by the Northridge earthquake.” In addition, California in 1994 was in the midst of a recession, and managed care and dwindling government support were straining the hospital budget. “Put those factors together, and the challenges that lay ahead from the moment Barbara and I set foot in L.A. became evident,” Dr. Levey recalled.

There was no choice but “to hit the ground running. And I did.”

To secure the funds necessary to build a new state-of-the-art hospital, as well as to advance new research facilities and to rejuvenate older ones, Dr. Levey became a fund-raising juggernaut. He cultivated personal relationships with Los Angeles’ business and philanthropy titans to raise more than $2.5 billion — $300 million of which was earmarked for the new hospital. It took 14 challenging years to get the hospital built.

“He was a great fundraiser,” says S. Andrew Schwartz, MD, a UCLA orthopaedic surgeon whose friendship with Dr. Levey began when they were neighbors and poker buddies. “He once told me, ‘Never ask for the money. Be patient; it will come.’”

Dr. Levey’s determined fundraising was evident from the moment he began his new position at UCLA. Dr. Mazziotta recalls his first meeting with the new dean, less than a week after he arrived in Los Angeles, to seek funds to complete construction of the UCLA Brain Mapping Center. “Keep in mind that, at the time, I was a mid-level neurology professor and nowhere on his radar," Dr. Mazzziotta says. "We shook hands, sat down and he asked me what was so urgent? I told him I needed to borrow $1 million. There was a pause. He asked me how long it would be before the medical school was paid back. I said one year if there was no interest. Another pause. He asked where would I possibly find the million dollars? I said from donors. Pause. He asked why did I believe that was possible? I said, ‘Well, I’ve raised $25 million already for the building, its equipment and faculty.’ Long pause. He said, ‘I think we’re going to get along just fine.’” Exactly 365 days later Dr. Mazziotta handed Dr. Levey a check for $1 million. Dr. Levey thanked him, and then told Dr. Mazziotta: “Get back out there and raise more money.”

About 18 months before Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center was finished, Dr. Levey took a walk through the halls. “Despite the clutter of construction, it started to look like a hospital to me, and I knew it was going to really happen,” he recalled. “My eyes started welling up with tears. The project had been so hard, with such obstacles, and more than once I was deeply concerned that we might not complete [it]. But my consistent mantra was we must not and cannot fail, and our team did not.” On June 29, 2008, as Dr. Levey — dressed in a grey suit, white sneakers and blue Bruin cap — oversaw the massive undertaking, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center opened.

“Moving into a new hospital is like orchestrating a symphony,” says Richard Azar, then director of transition planning for the new hospital and now chief operating officer for UCLA Health. “It is crucial that everything be perfectly coordinated.” When Dr. Levey arrived before dawn to rally the troops, “He told us, ‘This is it! This is our new house of healing. This is our new home. Cherish it. Love it.’”

At the conclusion of his valedictory letter, Dr. Levey summed up his career at UCLA with this assessment: “Did I accomplish everything I wanted to do? Most, but not all,” he wrote. “Have we left things in a better place than when we arrived? I will leave that for others to judge. What I do know is that I am thankful every day for the blessing of being able to do what I have done.”