Bob Levey’s ’62 love of writing, fostered while he was a student at ECFS, led to a 55-year career as a writer and columnist at the Washington Post. In April 2023, he visited the Fieldston campus to address students at Community Day and share career lessons and advice for the next generation of journalists. 

Bob Levey, right, with Jay Lagemann ’62

Which teachers impacted you during your time at ECFS?

I always say that my junior and senior English teacher, Elbert Lenrow — “he who terrified” — was the best teacher I ever had. He was no nonsense, no slack, you will do it all, you will do it right, and you will get better. He was a very large, hulking man, and he used to stand over me when I was scribbling in my notebook and say in his deep voice, “Levey, you can do better.” He drilled into me so many things that I still use today — careful preparation and loving the act of sitting down and writing. You have to love it, because so many people think it’s like going to the dentist, and I have never felt that — mostly because of him trusting my creativity. 

Spencer Brown, who was the head of the English department, also made a great impression on me. He was right out of central casting — tweed jacket, suede patches on the elbows, corncob pipe he never took out of his mouth — and he was just wonderful. He said, “We’re going to study poetry, even though none of you will ever be poets — but maybe some of you will.” 

The big message at ECFS was that they trusted us to be as confident as they expected us to be. How many kids get that opportunity? Kids are always pushed into corners and told no, no, no. And Fieldston is about “yes.”

Where did you go after graduating?

I went to the University of Chicago — another tremendous institution that I adore — and really fell in love with journalism. My plan, interestingly, was to become a guy with a corncob pipe and suede patches on the elbows, hang out, read the great books, and pontificate all my life, but I found that it just wasn’t right. I needed a kind of “be-bop-a-lula” in my life that teaching English wouldn’t have given me, so I leapt into journalism — I’m still leaping. 

Why journalism? 

Because it demanded of me what I had — the interest in many, many, many things and the kind of antic spirit that it takes to sit down and write something coherent when you only have 45 minutes. I quickly learned that when you go into a story, you very likely don’t know the person you’re talking to, you don’t know the subject, and you don’t know where the story will lead you — that’s exciting. For some people, it’s terrifying, but not for me. 

Being in journalism also played into my sense of being in an industry that really made a difference both intellectually and politically. Many journalists say that their career will have been worth it if they bag a politician or if they lead to the passage of some consumer law that takes sugary drinks out of the hands of children. So many of the people I worked with over the years just thought they were going to rain journalism down on this suspecting group of readers, but I don’t look at it that way at all. My notion of journalism has always been about building community — I want to bring people in. So, I did that in my column, which I was given by the “sainted” Mr. Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post. He said, “Write whatever you want, but make sure that it sticks.” 

I wrote that column, called “Bob Levey’s Washington,” daily for almost 25 years. What was it about? I have no idea what it was about! I wrote about muzak in elevators, I wrote about love in the office, I wrote about kids a lot. To write about muzak in elevators and make it interesting, you have to be spry, you have to be good on your feet, and you have to be as good writing about muzak as you would be about writing about the president. 

When you think about your education at ECFS, outside of that love and excitement around writing, how has it been reflected in your professional approach?

There’s no question that the nuts-and-bolts rigor of Fieldston set me up for success in college and later. But in my field, the ethical approach to learning here connected directly to the ethical approach that we used at the Post. There were lots of ethical regulations as a condition of working at the Post: we could not vote in primary elections, we could not give money to any cause, we could not sign petitions, we could not march in demonstrations, all to make sure that no one could honestly say you’re biased. I’m very proud that I have never been accused directly of bias or tilting any of the thousands of stories that I’ve written, and I think I can draw a straight line back to ECFS. 

What would you like to share with today’s ECFS students? 

Just how lucky I was to be here. It was a transitional time, but — I’m trying to think of how to say this so that I don’t sound like a meathead — I really gravitated towards stardom here. I was the lead in the plays, I was the valedictorian, the quarterback, the leading scorer on the basketball team. When you’re in a somewhat concentrated and small environment like this one, you begin to think, “Maybe I’m pretty good; maybe I can do it.” It lets you access that possibility — believing in yourself is what this School gives you.

Bob Levey, center, with Nick van Nes ’62, left, and David Mosen ’62 at their last football game as seniors in fall 1961

What is something that exemplifies your journalistic approach to making an impact on your community?

Once, I got a call at the newspaper from this woman who was in tears. She was a Navy wife for 30 years, she followed him all over the world, moved 18 times, and one day, he came home and announced that he was leaving her. She discovered that even though they’d been married for 30 years, she had no claim to his pension or health insurance. Well, I thought this was outrageous. I did some columns about it, people on Capitol Hill saw the columns, and today, as a military spouse after a divorce, you get a pro-rata pension and pro-rata health insurance. 

But there are also smaller ways you can make an impact — I’m actually almost just as proud of this one. One day in the 80s, we had just had a baby, and my wife tells me to to go get some milk at the store. I rush through the local grocery, and there’s always that check-out line on the left for small purchases at grocery stores. So I see that it says, “15 Items or Less.” I thought, “Wait a minute, I don’t have a degree in English from one of the greatest universities in the world not to know that it should be fewer!” So I wrote a column skewering this major grocery chain, and they updated all the signs in every single grocery store. That’s the kind of thing that I like to write about. 

What advice would you give someone who feels that spark of excitement about journalism?

I always tell young students this: there will always be journalists. The trouble is that there won’t be a career like mine — nobody is going to be able to step onto the deck of an aircraft carrier at age 22 the way I did and have a 55-year career. But if you find in it what I find in it — the ability to write, the challenge of writing, and the challenge of using journalism to build community — this is the business for you. Nothing quite glues the world together the way that media does. I’m proud to have done this, and I have all the trophies on the shelf to prove it, but that isn’t quite as important as when I go to the grocery store and somebody comes up to me and says, “Aren’t you the guy who wrote about sidewalks in my neighborhood?”