The Champion

The Champion

Fred Levin hit hard, won big and made enemies along the way. But the controversial, scrappy, generous and kindhearted namesake of UF’s law school never backed down from a fight to balance the scales of justice.
By David Finnerty
“A Jewish trial lawyer from a small Southern town is national boxing manager of the year and then made a chief of Ghana. He sues me, twice, and we still become great friends. It could only happen in America, and it could only happen to Fred.”

You wouldn’t have pegged Fred Levin as a boxing guy, once a big-timer in a brutal game. He lacked the brawn and footwork to be a prizefighter, the nastiness to be a promoter, the spit and hiss to be a trainer.

To look at him late in his life, it would have been easier to imagine Levin stooped over an accounting ledger or a cauldron of bubbling chili — steam rising to fog his glasses and dampen his mop of thick, dark hair.

“To me, he was grandpa,” Levin’s granddaughter Jacqueline Goodman, told a reporter. “My grandpa, who would make up silly songs about berries and threaten to sing them at our school talent show.”

But there’s Levin mugging it up with Muhammad Ali. At a press conference with powerbroker Don King. Center ring with middleweight champ and client Roy Jones Jr. All proof that Levin — one of UF Law’s most famous graduates — was as comfortable in the boxing arena as in the courtroom.

Fred Levin (right) and boxer Roy Jones Jr. reveled center ring after Jones won one of his multiple championship belts. In 1995, Levin was named the Boxing Writers Association of America’s manager of the year.

In hindsight, that chapter of Levin’s unusual life shouldn’t have been a surprise. It made sense that sooner or later he’d find his way to the sport. Or, more accurately, that the sport would find its way to him. Levin, after all, had been a brawler in his own right — one of the toughest trial lawyers in the business. By the time he became Jones’ manager in 1989, he’d bloodied a string of opponents in a law career that could be every bit as ruthless as a boxing match.

Besides, when it came to Levin (BSBA ’58, LLB ’61), nothing came as a shock.

“A Jewish trial lawyer from a small Southern town is national boxing manager of the year and then made a chief of Ghana. He sues me, twice, and we still become great friends,” Don King once said of him. “It could only happen in America, and it could only happen to Fred.”

This past January, Covid-19 ended the colorful life of the UF College of Law’s namesake. Levin was 83 … and went out swinging.

“To say Fred Levin was wonderfully unique is an understatement,” UF Law dean emeritus Jon Mills said. “To say he did it his way is absolutely true.”

Lacing Up the Gloves

Sports fans of a certain age will remember Jones from the “rigged” 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Jones — then considered far and away the best in his weight class — landed three times as many punches as South Korean Park Si-hun in their gold medal bout, but still lost a 3-2 judges’ decision. The verdict was so outrageous Park apologized to Jones after the fight and two judges were banned for life.

A few months later and not trusting the boxing establishment, Roy Jones Sr. asked Levin to manage his son’s professional career.

“He wasn’t in the business and he wasn’t a boxing lawyer, so I figured I would get a better shake and a fairer deal with Fred,” Jones Sr. explained to Levin biographer Josh Young.

It also didn’t hurt that Levin had a reputation for being a tenacious advocate for his clients and that the Joneses and Levins were all from Pensacola. Had it been possible, Jones’ absurd “loss” in Seoul would have been just the kind of case Levin would have itched to bring to court: a hard-working everyman victimized by conspiracies, cover-ups and corporate gluttony.

“He was always an advocate for the underdog,” UF Law Dean Laura Ann Rosenbury said of Levin.

And not just in the court of law.

In 1958, the year Levin entered UF’s law school, the University of Florida enrolled its first Black student, George Starke.

“Up to that point, I hadn’t thought much about racial issues,” Levin told a UF historian. “I looked over and my heart went out to him. Here were 350 white law students and this one Black guy. He was dressed in a suit, and the rest of us were dressed like bums. They started shuffling him, which is rubbing your feet together on the floor like they do in prison.

“I always studied in the library, and I would look across at George because he always had to sit at a table by himself, and everybody would shuffle their feet. It just tore me up. I wanted to go over and sit with him but I didn’t have the guts.”

Their second semester, Levin invited Starke to be his study partner, and the two became lifelong friends. Decades later, Levin made a large donation to UF’s Association of Black Alumni in Starke’s name.

It was classic Levin.

“Regardless of the criticism, Fred was never afraid to speak up for his beliefs,” Starke said when his friend died. “It was often to my benefit that he would say or do the right thing under any particular set of circumstances.”

Said son Martin Levin (JD ’88) at Levin’s funeral: “Dad had a very difficult time even understanding how someone could be prejudiced and never hesitated, in any capacity, to speak up against the majority, against the authority, against the established and against the popular.”

One of the country’s most successful trial lawyers, Fred Levin gave UF $10 million in 1999. In appreciation, the law college was named in his honor.

A Chiefdom in Ghana

Levin toted that sense of justice into his law career. He argued the wrongful death case of a child who’d been prescribed the wrong antibiotic; won an $18 million verdict for a family that had been poisoned when a freight train derailed near their Pensacola home and leaked anhydrous ammonia; sued Big Tobacco to recover billions of dollars that Floridians had paid in health costs related to smoking. And on and on.

The work was good for his clients and made a fortune for Levin’s law firm. The Republic of Ghana — so impressed with Levin’s record of helping minorities — made him a chief at a United Nations ceremony.

“The honor is only conferred on individuals who have demonstrated they care for humanity,” Ghana’s ambassador said at the time.

A citation from the U.S. Congress followed.

“We of the Congressional Black Caucus wish to join with the distinguished world citizens and other leaders in congratulating you on your designation as a Ghanaian Chief,” the letter read. “But more specifically, we wish to honor your lifelong contributions to bettering the lives of the people of Ghana and the people of America. Long before we became aware of your outstanding contributions in Africa, we knew of your work as a lawyer fighting on the side of underprivileged people in America. We thank you for that rich legacy. We are proud that the world community is now beginning to recognize your valuable service to it as well.”

At the final bell ending Levin’s long career, he’d notched more than 25 verdicts in excess of $1 million for his clients — almost all of them “little guys.” It was his fight with Big Tobacco that brought Levin national fame and his heftiest settlement: $13 billion. The tobacco case alone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said, is “likely responsible for saving 100,000 American lives each year.”

The Lancet, a weekly medical journal, wrote in December 2014: “[Levin] often met with controversy because of his relentless fight for justice against big companies. Love him or hate him, Fred Levin has enhanced the lives of many who needed help, and lived a life that only could be emulated in a Hollywood movie.”

The Shuffle

It wasn’t only George Starke who students “shuffled” that first semester of law school. Levin, too, got the treatment. He was an outsider, a partier whose grades were lousy and commitment to the law questionable.

Law school, for him, was less a calling than an excuse to remain in Gainesville after earning his UF undergraduate degree in business administration. To get in, he attended summer school to bring his GPA above the required 2.0. Once enrolled, however, Levin proved doubters wrong, as he so often did. He finished third in his class and, in time, became one of the nation’s best trial lawyers.

Accolades rolled in: the Perry Nichols Award in 1994, the highest honor bestowed by the Florida Justice Association, given in recognition of a person’s lifetime achievements in pursuit of justice; National Law Journal’s 1999 top civil litigator in Florida; national Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2016.

But what mattered most to Levin was doing right by his clients.

“Fred Levin does not say a lot about the people he has helped. That’s the problem,” Ireland’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams once said. “Unjustly, the warm, loving and giving man was brutalized sometimes by his critics. But I know the true Fred Levin, and he is, and always will be, a superstar in my mind.”

As years passed, Levin quietly shared his wealth with charities, hospitals and colleges — none more so than his alma mater. His no-strings $10 million gift to UF Law in 1999 was the second largest cash donation ever to a public law school. With it came a new name: The Fredric G. Levin College of Law.

“I was glad to give it to a school that had played such a big part in shaping my life,” Levin told his biographer.

UF’s Student Bar Association presented Fred Levin with a signed class photo in 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the college’s naming.

But, as with so many things in Levin’s life, there was controversy. Some believed Levin was too unconventional for the college to bear his name. Complaints roared into the offices of the president and dean. One letter summed it up: “You degraded the image and prestige of the University of Florida College of Law by selling its good name to Fred Levin, a lawyer who has been castigated by the courts for abusing the rules, and is notorious for commercializing the practice, thumbing his nose at the bar, and otherwise manipulating the system.”

The outrage didn’t bother Levin in the least.

“Two hundred years from now the great, great, great grandchildren [of my critics] will be getting their law degrees from a school with my name on it. It’s a good feeling,” he told the press. “When their great-grandchildren go up to that stage to get the law degree, they’ll know that, dadgummit, that Jew’s name is up there on the damn diploma. It’s just gotta eat at them.”

He ignored the criticism and kept giving. Levin gave $2 million for the Martin H. Levin Advocacy Center, named for his son. Another $1 million went to UF’s Lubavitch-Chabad Student and Community Center in 2013 to honor his wife’s memory — he’d met Marilyn (AA ’59) when both were undergraduates. Later, Levin donated 300,000 shares of stock worth $6 million to UF Law. And he still wasn’t done. When he died earlier this year, Levin remembered UF in his will with a bequest valued at $40 million, bringing the Levin family’s lifetime investments to more than $60 million.

He did all that, Levin insisted, because the world needs good lawyers.

“Fred pushed me to take the law school to new heights,” Dean Rosenbury reflected. “We’ve made a lot of progress these past few years, but we still have a ways to go. Fred’s amazing career will continue to inspire us as we move the Levin College of Law forward.”

The Levin Connection

Pensacola is just about as far from Gainesville as you can get and still be in Florida. It’s there that Abe and Rose Levin raised their sons: Fred, David, Herman, Stanley, Martin and Allen.

It’s there too that the Levins taught the boys to work hard, to look after each other, to be quick in offering a hand to someone who needs one.

And it’s from that town on the Alabama-Florida line that five of the brothers — David (LLB ’52), Herman (Ph.D. ’58), Fred (BSBA ’58, LLB ’61), Stanley (LLB ’63) and Allen (BSBA ’67) — would travel to Gainesville to earn college degrees. Brother Martin died of leukemia when he was 16, when Fred had just started law school.

The Levin family’s Gator tree sprouted more branches with the next generation and the one after that — wives, children and grandchildren (and sometimes their spouses, too) all share the UF connection. Like Fred, David and Stanley before them, some of the younger Levins even went into law. Fred’s daughter, Marci Goodman (JD ’85), and her husband, Ross (JD ’85), are both retired judges. Fred’s son, Martin (JD ’88), for years practiced in Pensacola alongside his father. Brenton Goodman (JD ’16), Fred’s grandson, is the latest to enter the law business. Others, such as Teri Levin, Allen’s widow, are among UF Law’s most generous philanthropists.

The best is yet to come

Go Greater was a determination, embraced across campus. To continue that pursuit, the university looks to caring philanthropists — the people who feed ingenuity and exploration and create doers and bring ideas to life, imagination to fruition, promise to fulfilment and potential to exceptional. It’s those partnerships with far-sighted leaders that will make UF even more spectacular and enable the university to touch the lives of Earth’s 7 billion people.

So we can all Go Greater, together.

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