This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society was recorded November 11,
1996 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project recorded by
Carol Shkolnik at the home of Don Levy.
Levy: Hi. This is Don Levy and we’re going to talk about the family and see what
we can dig up from the past.
Interviewer: I understand that your family was among the earliest Jewish families who
came to Columbus. Could you tell us what you know about that? Who they were, when they
arrived here in Columbus, and what the circumstances were?
Levy: They were not one of the early, early families like the Gundersheimers or the
Lazarus family. S.M. Levy was born in Buffalo, New York to Mark Levy and I can’t
remember Mark’s wife’s name. Someplace along the line, S.M. and his brother
moved to Chicago and they opened a clothing store which today is the Morris L. Rothchild
Clothing Store. For some reason, the brothers went to Jacksonville, Florida and opened a
store named Levy’s which is still in existence. S.M. was passing through Columbus
when he met the then Governor McKinley who suggested S.M. look carefully at Columbus to
possibly open a store here. The two became very good friends and S.M. opened a store here
in Columbus in 1894.
McKinley used to live in the Neil House on High Street and everyday, on his way to the
Capitol building, he would stop and turn around and wave to his wife who was watching from
the window. She was an invalid and could not go out. When McKinley was shot, my
grandfather, S.M., went out and had a fund raising and got enough money to put up a statue
of McKinley at the spot where he would stop and turn around and wave to his wife. That
statue remains there today.
Interviewer: Is that the one at the statehouse?
Levy: Yes. That’s the one.
Interviewer: Not to digress but I’m interested in the fact that your grandfather
was born in this country. Did his parents come to this country? Or did he leave them
Levy: Since he was born in this country, his parents were here. They could have been
born here themselves but they did come from England. One time while skiing in Utah, we
went to the Mormon Genealogy Institute and looked up Levy. We found a whole bunch of
Levy’s that migrated from England. There was a Mark Levy but we don’t know if
it’s the same one.
Interviewer: Were you able to connect your family to any of those names?
Levy: No. I haven’t been able to.
Interviewer: So, your great grandfather was born in this country and that would have
been around the mid 1800s?
Levy: Probably before that.
Interviewer: That’s pretty unusual. Especially from England. You hear of more Jews
coming from Germany. So, your grandfather ended up in Columbus almost by chance.
Interviewer: To you knowledge, did any of your grandfather’s siblings come to
Columbus? Or did they stay in Buffalo or Florida or Chicago?
Levy: My grandfather had the one brother who went to Chicago with to open the store.
None of the others came to Columbus.
Interviewer: You mentioned that your grandfather or father was on the board of Temple
Levy: Well, my father was on the board of Temple Israel for a relatively short time. He
was on the selection committee to select a Rabbi at the time that Rabbi Gup died. He and
Chuck Lazarus and I think one other person picked Rabbi Folkman.
Interviewer: Do you know if your grandfather had any involvement with the Temple?
Levy: I don’t know.
Interviewer: That’s ok.
Levy: I don’t think he did. But my grandmother was instrumental in getting the
Children’s Hospital started. Her maiden name was Kachen.
Interviewer: And her first name?
Interviewer: How do you spell Kachen?
Levy: I think it is K-a-c-h-e-n but I’m not sure. You might check with Bob (she
was his grandmother, too). They carried the Kachen name into their part of the family.
Levy: S.M. and Hattie had six children – one died during infancy. Two were twin girls
and they moved to Cincinnati. One twin became a Hellman and the other became a Cohn. The
Cohn children are my age and we’re still friendly. The Hellmans adopted a couple of
children but unfortunately, both of them died. They were also my age and we were very
friendly but they’re no longer with us. Fran Levy married Allen Gundersheimer.
Interviewer: This was your aunt?
Levy: Yes, she was my aunt and she and Allen opened a store called The Fashion. Allen
and Fran had three children. The other two were Bob Levy who married a girl from Kansas
City by the name of Bernice. They had four children. One died in infancy. They also had
twin girls. Twins do run in the family – they’re now like the fifth or sixth
generation. Every generation they pop up. My parents were Herb and Millie Levy. My mother
was from Toledo. She was a Klein and they met at Ohio State University. They were married
in 1926 and I was born in 1928. In my family, there is my sister and myself.
I went to the University of Iowa, met Reva Silverston and we married. We had four
children, Mike, Gary, Carol and Nancy and have eight grandchildren. Gary lives in Tucson,
Mike lives in Los Angeles, and Carol lives in San Diego. We spend our winters in the
southwestern part of the country so we can see our grandchildren.
Interviewer: I think that’s wonderful. Before we go further, can you recall any
family legends or things about family life that have been passed down through the
generations which you feel would be an important part of this recording?
Levy: We grew up in an era when it wasn’t very popular to be Jewish. We lived a
very assimilated life. Being in the retail business and the Christmas holidays being as
big as they were, we were very much involved in the Christmas season. We had very little
Judaism in our family. As far back as I could remember, including my grandfather, there
was virtually none. Until I married Reva, it was really the first time I’d had any
major exposure to Judaism.
Interviewer: Reva came from a different background?
Levy: Yes, she did.
Interviewer: How did that change things for you and your family in terms of religion?
Levy: She brought a different feeling into the family and the kids went to Sunday
school and were confirmed. I wasn’t. At the time, confirmations and Bar Mitzvah were
not part of my life or my family life. My grandchildren are being brought up more Jewish
because of the mix with my children’s spouses. One of my grandchildren even goes to
Hebrew school and all but one belongs to a Temple.
Interviewer: Do you attribute most of this to being in the retail business?
Levy: I think it was also part of the times because the other night at Temple Israel,
when they had their 150 year celebration, they had a film where there were people my age
referring back to their youth and growing up with the lack of Judaism prevailing. I think
it was part of the times what with the war and all that was going on. I don’t have a
good reason but the Rabbi seems to understand it.
Interviewer: And I do, too. Along those lines, it doesn’t have to be only about
the religion and can be any family stories you can recall – feel free to talk about it.
Levy: Bob Levy, my uncle, was very civic minded. He became known as the second mayor of
Columbus because of his involvement. There are a few articles. Here’s one,
“Levy, Honorary Mayor of Downtown Columbus.”
Interviewer: For the record, this was in the Columbus Dispatch in March, 1969. Can we
put this with the file?
Levy: You can make a copy and give it back to me. You’ll find a lot of history in
here and in the rest of these articles. He spent more than 50% of his time doing civic
things as opposed to just being in the store. Bob was on all civic Council type things,
connected with the AAA and he was a good friend.
Interviewer: So your uncle Bob was active in the community.
Levy: Very much so. He was very close to Ohio State University and was close with Woody
Hayes. When Bob was ill, Woody would always come up to the house to see him and vice
versa. Consequently, we had some pretty good football seats in those days.
Interviewer: I was looking through Mark Rafael’s book yesterday and I think it was
your uncle or someone else who was involved in bringing over some refugees during World
Levy: I think that stemmed from my grandfather and I believe they were related to my
grandmother whose family came from Germany. We brought over the Haas family – the ones who
used to be in the necktie business – and another family whose name I can’t remember.
Interviewer: Reva just walked into the room and is helping Don recall someone’s
Levy: Anyway, my grandfather brought over these two families from Germany and gave them
jobs in the Union. They probably worked there seven or eight years. One went into the meat
Interviewer: Wasn’t that Emil? I remember him.
Levy: Yes, that’s him. What was his last name?
Interviewer: That was Haas. It was your grandfather who was induced to start up a
clothing store in Columbus? You mentioned that the family had started up stores in Chicago
and Florida, I believe. Was that the Union? Tell me about the establishment of the Union.
Levy: After S.M. decided to build here in Columbus, he built a store that was strictly
a men’s clothing store at the corner of Long and High Streets that was build in 1894.
He had a partner who was part of the Weiler family. S.M. later bought out Mr. Weiler and
the store burned down about ten years after it was opened. Then they built the store with
the white brick that still exists today at Long and High, which is now an office building.
Levy: Yes, that was Bob Weiler – Alan Weiler’s grandfather.
Interviewer: So the first store was men’s clothing? Was it immediately successful?
Levy: I would imagine, like anything else, it wasn’t easy. The reason it was
called the Union was because it was started during the Civil War and the Union was North
and was on everyone’s tongue at the time. After the store burned down and they
rebuilt it, they put in women’s clothes at that time.
Interviewer: What were some of the milestones and the history of the Union?
Levy: Well, we were the first in Columbus to open a branch – the first branch was at
Lane Avenue in 1947. That was a small store and was expanded two or three times until we
couldn’t expand any further and eventually opened at Kingsdale. Over time, we had six
stores in the Columbus area and then started opening stores outside the Columbus area –
Chillicothe, Marion, and Lancaster for a short time. We even bought out another company
called Angels in Huntington, West Virginia which had five stores. At one time, we had
fifteen stores. Some of them weren’t successful and we closed them. In 1968, the
company was sold to the Manhattan Industry which is the Manhattan Shirt people and the
following year, we moved the store into what used to be The Fashion, across the street
from Lazarus. We had planned to do that prior to our sale so this gave us the opportunity
to do it a little faster. We moved across the street and that was a milestone. It
certainly made the downtown more viable. We had a much larger store – double the size of
what we had and the downtown store became quite successful whereas the old Union at Long
and High was beginning to lose its location position. It was surrounded by stores that
were all out of business.
Interviewer: Some of that’s being repeated now with City Center. You mentioned
that the Gundersheimers started the Fashion. What was the relationship and how did the
owners of the various department stores get along?
Levy: Like brothers. Of course, Allen was a brother but the Lazarus family.
Bob Lazarus, who was of the second generation in the Lazarus regime and Bob Levy were
like brothers. They did everything together. There was a great camaraderie between the
Lazaruses, the Levys and the Gundersheimers.
Interviewer: They never felt like Columbus wasn’t big enough for all of them?
Interviewer: Would you say that each had a certain niche in the business? Or merely
that there was enough to have those three different department stores?
Levy: We were not a department store. We were formally called a department specialty
store. So we were different right away. Ninety-five per cent of our business was clothing
– women’s, men’s and children’s clothing. The Fashion was only women’s
clothing. We tried to go from middle to upper in price ranges. Lazarus tried to cover the
field but they were never really successful getting into the higher fringes because they
were under a lot of pressure to do a certain amount of business after they sold out to the
Federated. The Fashion was somewhat in the upper price ranges. But they had a good, strong
store. The Fashion sold out to Allied, Lazarus sold out to Federated and we sold out to
Manhattan so no families were in an ownership position in Columbus. Madison’s
eventually sold out. It was the end of the family owned stores – especially the Jewish
Interviewer: What was that like? To you personally and the other families who were
still in the business? I would imagine it would have been difficult. Were you looking
forward to a new kind of career?
Levy: No. After the store was sold in 1968, Bob Levy and I ran the store for Manhattan.
Bob left to run another Manhattan store in Houston, Texas in about 1976 and I finally left
in 1978 to go into another type of business with some friends.
Interviewer: Were you looking forward to that sort of change? How difficult was it?
Levy: After you lose some control due to the sale to a company, over a period of time,
different ideas come about – different than what you’re used to. There’s enough
changes that go on that make you feel that although you’re supposedly running the
store, you’re not really running it the way it was being run earlier. I thought it
would be a good change and it turned out to be so.
Shortly after I left in 1978, about three years after, Manhattan Industries sold the
stores to Marshall Field. Marshall Field brought in Halle’s and it took Halle’s
two years to destroy it. The Schottenstein family picked up what was left and ran them out
of business other than the Kingsdale store. They held onto the Kingsdale store for about
six or seven years and then finally closed it.
Interviewer: Your family has been in the clothing business for a long time. When you
were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A doctor? A lawyer? Farmer? A what?
Levy: Well, I grew up in Bexley. I had a lot of close friends and a lot of gentile
friends. In my sophomore year at Bexley High School, I transferred to the Columbus Academy
and graduated from the Academy in 1946. I went to the University of Iowa. Someplace along
the way, perhaps when I was in junior high, we had a vocational week and everyone wrote a
paper about what they wanted to do when they grew up. I wrote that I wanted to be a
doctor. I called a few of my father’s friends who were surgeons and I even went down
and watched operations. I doubt that anybody can do that today. They put me in a gown and
mask and on a little stand and I stayed there during the operations. In fact, I was there
one day when they cut a fellow’s leg off. That was a little rough to watch. Once I
got to College, between the difficulty of getting into and through medical school, and the
number of GI’s who had gotten back – the war was just over and the schools were
filled with GI’s coming in and they were obviously given priority – so I entered the
business school and from that point on, stayed in the College of Business and graduated
with my business science degree. Then I went to work for the Union.
But I went to New York first. I went on a training program when I got out of College
and that lasted seven or eight months. I went to the various manufacturers and kind of
worked with them and watched how clothing was made. It was very interesting. I went to
Rochester, New York where three of our manufacturers of men’s clothing were located.
I actually had a suit made and carried all the pieces and parts to various servers and
cutters, etc. and I wrote a notebook about each stage and what each worker did and the
kinds of materials they used and so forth. I did that for three months then I went to New
York and worked in the buying office for another three or four months. Then I came home
and got married.
Interviewer: So, growing up, it sounds like there wasn’t any pressure or
expectation that when you got out of College you would go to work for the Union.
Levy: Not really, no. I had very little pressure on me from the standpoint of what I
was going to do, where I was going to go, what school I was going to go to. I kind of like
that and I tried to do the same thing with my own children.
Interviewer: What about your cousin? And the descendants of the generation before you?
Levy: Bobby went into the Navy. He’s two years older than I and graduated in 1944.
He was on the Destroyer, Mine Sweeper for a few years and said he was sick to his stomach
everyday he was in the Navy. I think he got out a little bit early because of that. He had
twin sisters – one married a fella from Gary, Indiana who came into the stores and
whose name was Al Kahn. The other twin married a fellow from Hattiesburg, Mississippi
and they were in the retail business. So the continuity continued.
The others were Fran Gundersheimer’s children. Allen went to work for his father
in The Fashion but he eventually came over to the Union and became the merchandise manager
for women’s accessories.
Interviewer: You have four children. This tape is about history and descendants.
Let’s hear about your married life, how you lived, your children and where they are
Levy: After I got married and came back to Columbus, we lived on Hampton Road in the
Mayfair Apartments. We lived there about two years and then bought a house on Maryland
Avenue. We lived next door to Leonard and ___________ York – John York’s parents. We
had our first child, Mike, while living there, followed by Gary, then Carol and Nancy.
Three of the kids live in the southwest. Mike lives in Tucson and is a business manager of
a publication called Madden Publication. He went to the University of Arizona.
Gary went out to California to become an actor and found it was more difficult than he
thought but did end up writing some things. He and another fellow just sold a story to
Disney and if it gets published, they should do fairly well from it. Gary went to the
___________ College in New York. Gary has a boy and a girl – Sarah and Jacob.
The girls said they liked the idea of going out west, if Mike liked it, they were going
out there. One went to the University of Arizona and the other went to Arizona State.
Carol was a marketing major and she came back to Columbus for a while then moved to
Cincinnati and went to work for Gibson Greeting Cards. She had a good number of marketing
jobs and then ended up moving to Los Angeles where she was married, moved to San Diego and
then later divorced. She has two children – two boys.
My other daughter, Nancy, met a fellow here in Columbus and he went into his family
business in Buffalo, New York. They’ve been living there for the last ten years,
since 1986. They have one son. They couldn’t have a child for a long time so they
went through an organization called “Gift” which is an in vitro sort of thing
and were very fortunate that the one time worked.
Interviewer: What are the age ranges of your children?
Levy: Mike is 45, Gary is 42, Carol is 39 and Nancy is 38.
Interviewer: And your grandchildren’s ages?
Levy: They range in age from twelve to two.
Interviewer: So you might be having a Bar/Bat Mitzvah coming up?
Interviewer: Reva is trying to think of the name of somebody brought over from Germany.
Levy: One was the Haas family and the other was the Simon family. The Simon family went
into the neckwear business and Helga Simon is approximately my age. She was probably born
Interviewer: That was the Simon & Haas Company?
Interviewer: This concludes the interview.