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Leonard “Butch” Levy

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Leonard “Butch” Levy was a smart guy, but he was renowned for his athletic talent. And so was his wife Lucky. His story and that of Lucky and their family typify a theme the JHSUM has been exploring—that our job is to collect stories and pass them on so that everyone sees that they are also part of the big story called history. OR that everyone is part of history. Our focus on World War II makes the Levy collection,  donated by son Peter even more relevant.

Butch Levy, U of M Hall of Fame Member for Football and Wrestling

Born in 1921,  Butch attended West High School, excelling in football, baseball, hockey, and wrestling. While enrolled at the University of Minnesota he was a National Collegiate Athletic Association heavyweight wrestling champ for two years running and quit undefeated. He was also champ of the Amateur Athletic Union of the U.S in 1941. His football career was just as distinguished. He played right guard on the U. of M.’s 1940 and 1941 national champion football teams. He was also chosen to play in the 1942’s College All-Star Game in Chicago, after which he was drafted in the first round by the L.A. Rams. He graduated from the University in 1942 with an economics degree and a political science minor. Three days later he was in the Navy.

Loretta, or Lucky as she was called in America, was born in 1924. Her father Julius Bellson was a merchandise manager for a chain of Berlin department stores, and the family was comfortably off. With Hitler’s rise to power the family fortunes inevitably suffered. In her memoirs Lucky recalled that her former friends not only shunned her but also threw rocks. She transferred to a Jewish school, but was not able to continue her beloved dance lessons although she competed in Jewish intramural sports and showed great talent in track events. As the situation grew grimmer, her brother Peter, who was one year older, was sent to Britain on a children’s transport. The rest of family was finally able to leave in 1939, just about one week before Germany invaded Poland. Wrote Lucky about sighting the Statue of Liberty, “I cry every time I see it . . . and every time I talk about it.”

Loretta "Lucky" Bellson, and Butch Levy on their wedding day.

The family settled first in New York and then in Minneapolis. Julius first sold stocking door to door but later found a job in a furniture store. Lucky recalled feeling embarrassed at the clothing she first wore on dates because it was always “wrong.” She soon got it “right,” because Butch fell in love with her. They were married in January, 1944.

Peter Bellson, Loretta "Lucky" Bellson, and Butch Levy, Minneapolis, Minnesota

With Peter’s arrival in 1940 the family was reunited, but not for long. Peter enlisted in the army in 1941. He was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Jean Bellson’s brother two sisters and their families also did not survive the war.

Leonard "Butch" Levy in his Navy uniform, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Butch served 44 months in the Navy, but he was stationed in California. Afterward he began playing for the LA Rams and later the LA Dons. In the off-season he wrestled professionally traveling between 1946 and 1955 as far as New Zealand. He furthered his career by brazenly challenging better-known professional wrestlers to matches.

Butch Levy and opponent at wrestling match.

He and Lucky returned to the Midwest in the mid 1950s, where Butch worked for more than 40 years as an insurance agent and securities salesman. He served as chair of Twin City Opportunity Industrialization Center and was on the board of the Minneapolis Urban League.

Lucky’s story, as is usual with women of her era, is a bit harder to discern. There is a photo of her at a sewing machine in the late 1940s, so we must assume she was practicing housewifery. She was a beautiful woman and had many friends. They commented that she was a superb athlete and taught classes in exercise and yoga. She and Butch raised three children, fine athletes all, and one of whom they named Peter. In later years they were blessed with eight grandchildren. Lucky died in 1997 and Butch in 1999.

With its intertwining of humor, valor, and tragedy, this is fine example of a World War II era “His Story” and “Her Story.” It truly is an “Our Story” as well, because the trajectory of their lives was quite common—education, then service in the armed forces, marriage, homemaking, trying out several careers and settling on one, raising children, and finding volunteer outlets. It was common, and as with each individual story it was also uncommon in its specificities. Both Butch and Lucky were talented athletes. But Lucky, as with most women let alone refugees, had no way to develop her talents to the fullest. Lucky and her family suffered as all refugees do because they didn’t know the language and customs and had to start at the bottom of the economic ladder. And even though they escaped, they left family behind who perished.

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