FRESNO — Joe Levy, former Gottschalks department store CEO and a community icon in Fresno, whose legacy extended far beyond his retail empire, has died.
He was 82. His wife, Sharon Levy, confirmed that he died of pneumonia Monday night after getting sick over the weekend.
Mr. Levy was a quiet-mannered leader whose commitment to Fresno didn’t stop with his family’s homegrown department store chain. His contributions ranged from advocating for women’s professional advancement to playing a key role in getting highways built in Fresno.
“He wasn’t a big, tall guy, but he was a giant when he walked into a room,” said Al Smith, Fresno Chamber of Commerce CEO and president. “Everybody knew Joe Levy was in the room. Everybody listened to what he had to say. He did it in a very calm, determined way that most people around him respected.”
Mr. Levy and his wife, a former Fresno County supervisor, would have been married 60 years next week.
“They were just the epitome of a perfect couple together,” said Jim Famalette, who succeeded Mr. Levy as Gottschalks CEO. “They were always looking for ways to be part of the community and make the community better – not just with Gottschalks but through their own personal efforts as well.”
Mr. Levy’s list of leadership positions and accolades is lengthy: He won the Leon S. Peters Award in 1989, the chamber’s top honor for service to the community. A former president of the chamber, Mr. Levy was active in the Downtown Association, the Boys Club, Fresno Arts Museum, Fresno Metropolitan Museum and the business school at California State University, Fresno.
But he was best known for Gottschalks. Mr. Levy’s great-uncle was company founder Emil Gottschalk.
Born and raised in Fresno, Mr. Levy graduated from Fresno High School and then left his hometown only to attend the University of Southern California and to work at Younker’s department store for two years in Des Moines, Iowa. He returned to Fresno in 1956 to work at Gottschalks. When Levy joined the firm in 1956, Gottschalks had one store in downtown Fresno and less than $4 million in annual sales. The company grew to about 80 stores under his leadership, Sharon Levy said. Those included a 90,000-square-foot store in east Modesto’s Century Center shopping center and a three-story, 154,500-square-foot store in Vintage Faire Mall.
He became CEO and chairman of the company in the mid-1980s, staying on as CEO until 1999 and stepping down as chairman in 2007. The company later filed for bankruptcy and closed its stores in 2009 after 105 years in business.
Mr. Levy was attempting to resurrect the brand in recent years, with Gottschalk by Joe Levy stores, but they never materialized.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Robert Oliver said he first met Mr. Levy when, as a college student, he worked at a clothing store across the street from the flagship Gottschalks store downtown and later became better acquainted with the retailer.
“When I talked to Joe, I could tell he had absolute pride in his store, in his people and what they did, in the way they served the public,” Oliver said. “When I was a young man starting out, I looked to Joe Levy and a few others in the community as people that I would wish to emulate in terms of their commitment and their ability.”
Oliver also fondly remembered Mr. Levy’s love of old Cadillac automobiles: “To him, they weren’t broken in until they were about 10 years old.”
Mr. Levy was always optimistic, friends and business associates said.
And he was a gifted merchandiser, said Gerald Blum, who was a business partner with Levy for 30 years and was also a grand-nephew of Emil Gottschalk.
“Sometimes his enthusiasm got carried away, but once he was dedicated to doing something, he usually got it done,” recalled Blum, who retired from the company in 1995. “His main goal was to try to hit a billion dollars in sales, and I think we got to about $600 million.”
The company went public in 1986 on the New York Stock Exchange.
But the retail environment changed over the years, and the company fought an uphill battle against big-box discounters and national chains,
And when the company slid into bankruptcy, it was the employees – not just the company – who weighed heavily on Mr. Levy’s mind, said Joseph Penbera, who was a member of Gottschalks’ board of directors for more than 20 years.
“Joe cared more about the families that were losing their income and losing their professions,” Penbera said.
During his time at Gottschalks, Mr. Levy made sure women held management positions in the company.
“I was very proud of him,” Sharon Levy said. “He appointed so many women as store managers.”
He was also one of the founders of the Central California Women’s Conference.
For years, Mr. Levy served on the California Transportation Commission, and he was instrumental in getting part of Highway 41 built. He championed Measure C in 1986, which helped pay for new segments on Highways 41, 168 and 180.
“A lot of the roads we drive on have been influenced by Joe,” Smith said. “He helped Fresno and the Central Valley get its share of transportation accomplishments.”
Mr. Levy had a smile on his face through all of it, Penbera said. “This guy, he loved the city and he loved Gottschalks, and he put his whole life into it,” he said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Levy is survived by daughters Felicia Levy Weston and Jody Schlesinger, son Bret Levy and nine grandchildren. A private memorial service will be held.