Visionary leader oversaw the building of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center after the Northridge earthquake
Dr. Gerald Saul Levey, a nationally recognized leader who transformed UCLA’s hospitals and medical school into a world-class academic health system, died at home on June 25 of Parkinson’s disease. He was 84.
Levey served the university as Vice-Chancellor of Medical Sciences and Dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA from 1994 to 2010. During his 16-year tenure, Levey amassed an extraordinarily long list of achievements crowned by the building of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and a $200 million endowment to the UCLA School of Medicine by entertainment executive David Geffen.
“It’s not possible to say in a short time what Jerry Levey means to UCLA,” said Chancellor Gene Block. “He left us with a state-of-the-art hospital, an endowed medical school, five new research buildings, and 100 endowed chairs. Many generations will reap the benefit of his vision, leadership, and dedication.”
Levey was born on Jan. 9, 1937, in Jersey City, N.J, to Jacob and Gertrude Levey. His father, who had emigrated from Odessa, completed night school to become an attorney, and his mother was the daughter of Polish immigrants.
Growing up during the Depression, Levey’s earliest memory was of wanting to be a physician like his pediatrician.
“He made house calls, set my broken nose, stitched a nearly severed finger, and fixed a fractured collarbone at our kitchen table,” he recalled. “I was absolutely in awe of him.”
When Levey turned 18, his father died of a heart attack, forcing his mother to join the workforce. On a secretary’s income, his mother paid for Levey’s college and medical school education; he graduated debt-free.
His senior year at Cornell University, Levey met Barbara Cohen, a quick-witted blonde who sat next to him in folk music class. It was, Levey, quipped, “a case of assigned seating — and love at first sight.”
Cohen, who graduated cum laude from Cornell, had already been accepted to medical school at the State University of New York in Syracuse. She graduated as the only woman in her 120-student class.
After Levey earned his medical degree from Seton Hall College of Medicine and Dentistry, the couple married in 1961, launching a partnership in family and career that spanned 58years.
Levey interned at Jersey City Medical Center and pursued a postdoctoral fellowship in biological chemistry at Harvard. After a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he trained for four years at the National Institutes of Health. In 1970, Levey was hired as an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, where he was funded as a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator.
In 1979, the University of Pittsburgh recruited him to chair its academic medicine department and serve as Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Presbyterian-University Hospital. During his 13-year tenure, Levey confided his desire to lead a major medical school to the university vice-chancellor, who encouraged him to hone his business and management skills at a larger organization.
In 1991, Levey surprised his academic colleagues by accepting a position at the pharmaceutical company, Merck & Co, as Senior Vice President of Medical and Scientific Affairs.
The strategic move paid off. Three years later, UCLA chose Levey for the newly merged roles of medical school Dean and Provost of the Health Sciences and hired Barbara Levey as Assistant Vice Chancellor of Biomedical affairs.
The enterprise Levey inherited was massive: a medical school with more than 2,000 faculty and 725 students, and a health system of more than 75 community clinics and four hospitals on two medical campuses treating 80,000 hospital patients and 1.5 million clinic patients per year. Levey was tapped as the single executive to supervise the entire UCLA health sciences and integrate its factions into a cohesive, well-run organization.
When Levey joined UCLA in September 1994, he couldn’t have picked a less auspicious time. Mired by budget woes, a weak census, and discord between hospital and school leadership, UCLA struggled to finance its research and teaching programs while delivering care in a marketplace rocked by a recession, managed care, and dwindling government revenue.
Eight months earlier, the Northridge earthquake had damaged UCLA’s circa-1955 hospital. Following Levey’s appointment, engineers indicated the building would be unable to function in the event of another major quake. Levey was thrust into the unexpected role of overseeing the creation, financing, and construction of a new medical center. Famed architectural firms I.M. Pei & Associates and Perkins & Will designed the facility to anticipate the future demands of medicine and meet California’s rigid seismic standards.
Levey embraced the challenge with boundless enthusiasm, raising a record $300 million in private funds for the hospital by cultivating personal relationships with Los Angeles’ luminaries in business and philanthropy. He persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency to allocate $432 million to the new facility, noting its indispensable role in a future disaster.
On June 29, 2008, the unpretentious leader arrived before 4 a.m. in sneakers and a Bruins baseball cap to rally thousands of staff and volunteers. He oversaw the seven-hour transfer by ambulance and gurney of more than 340 psychiatric and clinical patients–including premature infants from the neonatal ICU and critically ill adults in comas.
Moving one patient every two minutes, the monumental task ran like clockwork and finished three hours ahead of schedule. By the afternoon, doctors had opened the emergency room for business and begun performing organ transplants and delivering the hospital’s first babies.
Encased in white Italian travertine and filled with natural light, the 1-million square-foot facility took 14 years to complete. It houses Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, and UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital.
Levey never lost sight of the reason behind the hospital. “Thinking about all of the people whose lives will be better because of the care they receive here is a very humbling and rewarding prospect,” he commented in UCLA Medicine.
Levey also oversaw the design and construction of a striking new campus for UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, and the addition of five state-of-the-art research buildings.
“Jerry didn’t focus exclusively on buildings; he knew that a successful enterprise is built on talented, dedicated people,” said Dr. John Mazziotta, UCLA Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences and CEO of UCLA Health. “He invested in recruiting and mentoring excellent people. Everyone at UCLA benefitted from his vision and ability to lead.”
During his tenure, Levey catapulted the hospital and medical school into U.S. News & World Report’s top rankings; recruited 20 academic chairs; revamped the educational curriculum; awarded medical degrees to more than 2,500 students; and oversaw the creation of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center and five new departments, including human genetics.
His leadership extended far beyond UCLA. Levey was a founding board member for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. When the county’s troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center closed in South Los Angeles in 2007, Levey advised the County Board of Supervisors and the UC Board of Regents to enter a partnership, leading to the reopening of the hospital in 2012.
Fond of saying, ‘Never be afraid to do the right thing,’ Levey emphasized that a decision’s outcome mattered less than whether it was the ethical thing to do. That motto inspired the title of his business memoir in 2011.
His second book, “A Gift for the Asking,” described his personalized approach to fundraising. As Dean, Levey raised an unprecedented $2.52 billion in private donations.
To honor his exceptional service, Levey received numerous prestigious awards. Chief among them were the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor; the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science Board Medal of Honor; and the American Jewish Committee’s award for distinguished leadership
“I feel blessed to have the life I have had,” Levey told the Daily Bruin. “I consider my experience at UCLA the pinnacle of my career.”
Levey is survived by his sister Paula Westerman; son John (and Michele) Levey; his daughter Robin Levey Burkhardt; and three grandchildren. His beloved Barbara died in 2019.