Who’s Here: Myron Levine, Businessman

If you have had your car trucked to Florida for the winter, chances are good that you have used the transport company that Myron Levine created many years ago. Myron sold that service four years ago, retiring to his home in the Hamptons, but he is no stranger to this place. He has been coming out to the Hamptons for over 30 years.

Myron was born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of a man who during World War II was a tool and die maker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and after the war started a small general contracting company. His mother did the bookkeeping. He went to Madison High School and later to LIU, but perhaps the most important influence on him during his growing-up years was the summer cabin his father built with his own hands on a lake in upstate New York. Their frequent trips up there, virtually every weekend in the summertime and often in the spring and fall, led to his communing with nature in a way that none of his teenage friends in high school could experience.

“The property was 12 acres of woods on a lake near Middletown, New York, south of Monticello. We drove up in an old Studebaker. That first year, we came up with a big army surplus tent and just set it up on the property for me and my sister and my mom and dad. Dad brought a tractor on the site and he and I cleared the land of sumac trees. I drove it when I was 11. It was an International Farmall Cub. The following year we built the house, a three-bedroom affair. My dad—and he could build or fix anything—taught me the virtues of hard work. I went fishing, hiking and swimming with my friends and we were always around farm animals. My mom created a vegetable garden. There were 10 or 12 properties around this small lake and so we were a whole bunch of kids who knew one another. We went hiking, bike riding, we all had dogs, we were a community.”

Myron went to LIU in Brooklyn, studied accounting, then went to Brooklyn Law School. He’d been shy in high school. He blossomed in college and joined a theater group and was President of the Fraternity Council. He finished #1 in the class in his first year of law school, became the notes editor of the law review and graduated 6 out of 300.

After law school he was interviewed, took a test for and was ultimately hired as an attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in the division of corporate regulation in Washington D.C. He moved to Washington. He lived in Washington during the turbulent years of 1966 through 1968 (the height of the Vietnam War’s escalation and the protest movement). He was involved in protesting the war by serving as director of a D.C. based organization called Concerned Citizens for Peace and by serving as the cofounder of a group called Government Employees Against the War. In view of his position as an employee of a federal agency, this was a little dicey. He left the SEC in 1968 to start a securities practice at a small NYC law firm. In 1971 he left that firm to become special counsel to the New York Stock Exchange and eventually was promoted to be director of the enforcement division at the exchange and then counsel to the exchange’s regulatory group.

“There had been a lot of brokerage firms that went bankrupt in the late ’60s.” One reason for the problem was the increase in trading and the fact that firms did not have the ability to keep track of orders or paperwork. As a result, many firms found themselves in a heavily leveraged position (much greater than the maximum allowable ratio of 20–1). In a number of instances firms manipulated their books to disguise their dire liquidity problems. It was Levine’s job to conduct, in essence, a forensic examination of these firms to discover what had actually occurred with a view to enabling the Stock Exchange to recover sums it lost in the debacle.

In 1970 Myron had met Susan Steinberg, and they got married on her birthday in May 1971. That is when he took the job at the NY Stock Exchange. They moved to the Upper West Side of NYC, and in 1972 they purchased a brownstone on 101st Street between Riverside and West End Avenue. There were eight apartments in the building but they were able to take over three apartments and has a three-bedroom duplex and five apartments that they rented out. While in NYC he tried to continue with his anti-war activities but he found the local groups were often more interested in local issues like preserving rent control and other local issue and he eventually stopped working formally in this regard.

In January 1975, their first child was born, Joshua, and he felt now, with his family starting, he needed to shift gears. At first he had an idea to start a gold fund when President Nixon legalized gold ownership in 1974. One of the big Wall Street brokerage firms—Donald, Lufkin and Jenrette—was interested in working with him to establish such a fund. At the last minute the deal fell apart. Up until that time he had been satisfied with being an employee. But now he had the entrepreneurial bug. He tried to come up with another idea for a business he could start on his own.

At a dinner one night, he learned that his father-in-law, who was approaching retirement, was now hiring college kids to drive his car to Florida where he had bought a condominium. At that time, the only way to transport a private car to and from Florida was by either casual driver or by the old Auto Train.

“Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if we could use those auto transport trucks to start taking cars to Florida and back, eight at a time?”

Because of his knowledge about the government, he knew he would need to obtain a certificate of convenience and necessity from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). These certificates were very difficult to obtain back them, when the trucking industry was so heavily regulated.

“I applied for the license in November of 1975, and the application was rejected approximately one year later. Essentially, the rejection decision stated that because I had no trucks, no facilities, no authority and no one engaged in the business, it was surely not something that could be done profitably.” A Catch-22 if there ever was one.

He appealed. And as it happened, Congress was considering deregulating the trucking industry at that time. He testified before Congress about his experience, and as a result on appeal his application was reversed. He got the go-ahead, although with limited authority.

“We started the business, Autolog Corporation, in November of 1976. It was the start of a whole new industry. And I was entirely new as an entrepreneur. Now I was dealing with truckers, unions, and all these characters who were right out of a Damon Runyan novel. It was very hard during the first three or four years.”

He started the business in Brooklyn, but soon moved it to Jersey City, which was more of a transportation center.

“This was union central. We were not unionized. It was very hard, very uncomfortable, building this business with this attitude all around us. But we did it. We survived.”

In 1975, he and his wife began coming out to the Hamptons for the summer. They and another couple rented a cottage on the Rogers farm in Water Mill.

“We loved it out here. I was, during those first years, working 24/7. You really can do that. You work from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., then come home and think about it all night. You do not make the world’s greatest decisions when you are 24/7. Coming out to the Hamptons for the weekend cleared my mind. I think it made the eventual success of the business possible.”

In 1978, while staying at a motel on the Montauk Highway, they passed a model house at Whalebone Landing on Noyac Road and bought a house. The cost was $90,000 all together, and they could afford that. It was because it was $500 down, $8500 at the closing, and they’d take a mortgage on the rest. In 1979, their son Noah was born.

The business grew and grew. Soon they were not only transporting cars to Florida, they were also transporting new and used vehicles for manufacturers and other businesses as well as military vehicles. They made arrangements with railroads and started a national logistic company that handled the transport of vehicles all of the country. In 1988 they purchased a five-acre parcel on Brick Kiln Road and furnished a new home in 1991. They have been there since.

Myron and Susan had two sons—Joshua, born in 1975, and Noah, born in 1979. Joshua had a successful career in real estate in NYC, however, with his wife, Ann, they decided to move out to Sag Harbor in 2008 and he took a job as an intern on the Quail Hill farm in Amagansett.

On a cold day in late November 2010, Joshua was killed while working on the farm. He had driven a tractor down to where a chicken house needed to be cleaned out. There was no eyewitness to the accident and no one knows exactly how it happened. Joshua Levine had recently been promoted to farm manager at that time. Quail Hill was one of those organic farms that is communally owned. The family was stunned and shocked, and there was a great outpouring of grief from the entire East End community at the loss of this very popular 35-year-old who had devoted his life to organic farming and who left behind a wife and two young children.

A memorial service attended by hundreds of people was held. Myron and Susan Levine arranged for several memorials to be created to honor their son. For the third year in a row, the American Hotel in Sag Harbor hosts a dinner honoring Josh and raising money for the East End Edible School Garden Program. And now Myron Levine, in his fourth year of retirement, has embarked upon the creation of a large-scale charitable organization to honor Joshua’s passion for living a simple life out here on the East End.

“Also,” Myron told me, “I needed to find a way to pay this community back” for all the support they gave him and his family. “Some people view the Hamptons as a place of glitz and glamor inhabited by people who fell they are entitled to whatever they want. It has been my family’s experience during this time of great pain for us that it is more like Andy Griffith’s fiction town of Mayberry, and people are there to help you in your time of need.”

 

The charity is called ALL FOR THE EAST END (AFTEE) and its inauguration will be at a concert to be held this year on August 19 at the Martha Clara Vineyard in Riverhead. The Vineyard is owned by the heirs to the Entenmann Bakery business, and they have been incredibly gracious and have donated their ground and buildings to hold the concert.

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