Don Rogers: Legacy of a Swan
A precious few people in this life leave you understanding their true importance.
Speaker after speaker came to the podium Saturday at the North Star House to talk about Peggy Levine’s meaning for our community.
I agreed wholeheartedly. Even I, a newcomer, knew Peggy and stepped more or less lively at her direction, always issued in good cheer and no less persistent for an illness I could not detect.
I told her I’d just read a novel, “Angle of Repose,” the 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner that takes place in large part on the thinly fictionalized grounds of North Star House. Soon enough I learned the fiction was thin indeed about the life of Mary Hallock Foote and husband Arthur. Thin enough that together with a few dramatic twists of true fiction the book infuriated the family and stained the reputation of author Wallace Stegner.
Peggy knew all this, of course, and insisted I come see the house with her as my guide. She could have left it at “You should see the house!” But I came to learn that wasn’t her way. She would show me everything.
She died in the bloom of life at 72, only her body breaking down. I’m told she still had such plans! Who had time for leukemia? There was a hospital wing to raise funds for, the once-abandoned hulk of the mine superintendent’s house, designed by a famous architect, Julia Morgan, to help restore. An arts community, her husband the mayor, a whole family, community, you and me to support and connect to our interests and our higher selves.
That’s what I heard in the speeches and songs at her celebration of life.
The kids in the neighborhood grew up facing a full glass cookie jar right at eye level when they stepped into the Swan-Levine House, trusted not to just help themselves. In the retelling anyway, they didn’t let her down.
She made a college friend whose folks lived in Libya a member of the family. This friend, later offered a ticket to anywhere at the end of a collapsed relationship, took it and found refuge with Peggy and Howard at the heart of Summer of Love San Francisco in 1967.
Peggy’s degree was printmaking, her passion art. I guess hospitality was her calling or at least in her blood — at the Swan-Levine House she and Howard restored from the Old Long Hospital into the bed-and-breakfast, printmaking studio and art gallery it’s been since 1975. And at the Holbrooke Hotel they owned for a dozen years and she managed.
Somehow she found time to help shape things around here in art, politics, education, history and more through participation on boards and taking on causes. Like the North Star House.
She put the lie to you and I begging off anything for want of time.
She read and wrote exhaustively, in longhand letters with family photos to stay in touch, as one friend remembered at the podium with a smile. Others mentioned long conversations about articles in dog-eared New Yorker issues.
A grandson complained gently about walking to the candy store with her during visits. Those walks stretched forever, agonies of eternity to young boys holding to the promise of candy. Candy! If only she wouldn’t talk to every single person they met along the way.
He apologized to laughter if his decorum ever slipped during those long walks.
There was a lot of laughter, warm as the day, even as voices shook and her daughter kept looking up as she spoke, taking advice from someone when the tears flowed.
Howard tripped as he stepped up the stage. “Yep, this is how she expects me to make an entrance,” he observed before launching into quite a moving speech. He included her long enduring the family’s love of “Star Wars,” her own matching Force, North Star House, everyone who took care of her through illness, this unearthly spirit unconquered by death, I swear.
I think I know what it is, though. Everyone who spoke to however many hundred of us on the back lawn touched on it.
“What she was about was everyone else.”
“She loved to make personal connections.”
“She was always working to make things better.”
“She had no hotel experience. What she had was people experience and could make people confident.”
“You could not say no to her.”
“‘It’s going to be great and you can do it,’ she’d say”.
She was important, still is. But even rarer is the person who can make you realize how important you are.
This was Peggy’s gift.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at email@example.com or 477-4299.
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