Daniel Rubin: Putting the right face on a good life

Mort Levy's farewell request: Hug a child, help a stranger, remember to say "I love you."
Mort Levy's farewell request: Hug a child, help a stranger, remember to say "I love you."
Posted: September 26, 2011

Mort Levy wasn't a fastidious man - far from it - but he wanted to make sure he went out on his own terms. When he learned in March that he didn't have long to live, he sat down in the study of his Center City home and crafted an obituary.

He loathed the idea of some unknown person trying to connect the dots of his singular life. So he wrote 264 of his own words on a sheet of legal paper and sealed them in an envelope for his partner, Julie Hirsch Waxman, to send to this newspaper at the appropriate time.

Mort's was the sort of death notice people remember.

"I, Morton Levy, Dec. 22, 1933 - Sept. 13, 2011, age 77," he began, "invite all who would celebrate my life to do so by hugging a child, helping a stranger, or remembering to say I love you to someone special."

He went on to describe the disease that beat him, acute myeloid leukemia, which complicated his long battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He wanted people to know he'd lived a good life.

"I was a world traveler, Navy veteran, scuba diver, playwright, martial artist, and occasional actor. I was an English professor, writer, and social worker. I was an avid naturalist, bird watcher, and someone infinitely curious about life . . ."

He acknowledged each member of his blended family - even his "spare grandson," beloved, if not related. And he recalled the 26 years of love, bumps, and laughter with his life partner.

He said he intended to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in a favorite, though undisclosed, setting. He left room for a second act:

"If reincarnation exists, I plan to return as a hawk. Look for me."

Finally, he chose a photo to go with the notice: bearded, bald and beatific, he's the portrait of contentment in his white karate Gi.

The online version of his death notice drew raves.

"I've been reading these for 43 years, and never have I been so uplifted," wrote one reader. "I surely wish I had known you, Mort, I would have adored being in your company."

But when Julie Hirsch Waxman picked up the paper to read her partner's last work, she was aghast.

The picture that ran above the death notice was of a total stranger, a dark-haired man dressed in a coat and tie.

"Mort never had hair," Waxman said. "Not since he was in his 20s. And he never wore a suit. He had to borrow a sports coat to go to his niece's wedding. And here we have this John Facenda look-alike."

Mort's sister-in-law called, equally horrified. She'd just snapped up eight copies of the paper.

Then Waxman realized the equally disturbing possibility that somewhere another woman was picking up the paper, reading the notice, and thinking, "Oh, my God. Who's this guy under my husband's picture?"

"To be honest," Waxman says now, a week later, and chuckling, "it was a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment."

Enough readers tipped me off to Mort's death notice and the curious mix-up that I dropped by the rowhouse he'd shared to hear about, as Waxman put it, "Mort's Zen life."

He grew up in Hazleton, "a nerd," Waxman says, who loved hiking into the coal-rich mountains to look for fossils. He studied zoology at Pennsylvania State University but wasn't prepared for the rigor of the discipline. After serving in the military during the Korean War, he returned to State College on the GI bill, switching to English, gaining two degrees, and staying to teach.

He was a full professor of English 37 years ago, when he packed up and moved to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to see if he was really a writer.

"My ex-husband used to say Mort lived his life the way most of us don't have the guts to do," Waxman said.

A host of adventures followed, testing kitty litter in California, working as a social worker in Philadelphia. And he kept writing. Waxman was reading to him from one of his plays moments before he died.

It's still unclear to Waxman who the mystery man is in the death notice, but she says the newspaper refunded her money and printed the right information over two more days for free.

"Mort would have loved that."

Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com,

or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq

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