Daniel Leviton, 1931-2011A professor of death, and teacher to the end


Daniel Leviton taught at the University of Maryland from the late 1960s until his retirement in 2006. (Courtesy of the Leviton family)
December 15, 2011

Dan Leviton spent most of his life preparing to die.

For more than three decades, the University of Maryland health professor taught courses on death education that drew hundreds of students every semester. One young woman came because of a near-death experience she’d had at age 10, when a wave washed over her in Atlantic City. Another was grieving from the loss of her father in a plane crash. More than a few students over the years were contemplating suicide.

Many came simply because they knew Leviton’s reputation as a phenomenal professor. In the American “death-denying culture,” as Leviton once called it, his classroom was one place to look for answers about the end of life.

One of the lessons he taught his students was about fear. While they might fear how they would die, he sometimes said — in a fire, in war, of a painful disease — they shouldn’t fear death. The process of dying may be wrenching for you and the people who love you, but the end itself, as one former student put it, is “simple and concrete.”

And he taught that lesson not just in a classroom, but, eventually, through his own example.

Leviton’s death at age 80 came May 13, at his home in Adelphi, after three years of esophageal cancer. Though he tried chemotherapy and radiation, said his wife, Susan Leviton, at a certain point, he was no longer a sick man, but a dying one.

He tried to prepare his wife, his two children, his friends and even himself for the loss. In e-mails to those closest to him, he did what he had counseled his students to do when their own time came: He reckoned with his life, including his regrets, and said goodbye.

Leviton convened discussion groups at his home every few months to talk about death, and about life. The friends and former students who attended the meetings compare the experience to “Tuesdays With Morrie,” writer Mitch Albom’s book about his visits with a beloved former professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Leviton was a teacher “absolutely to the end,” said Linda Campanelli, a former student who went to the meetings. Another of his lessons, she said, is that “loss is germane to every day of our lives.”

“Whether we’re shedding skin cells ... or whether we lose something of great value,” she said, the study of death prepares a person for much more.

***

Leviton came to the University of Maryland faculty in the late 1960s as a health education professor and soon joined a movement in the United States to make “thanatology,” the study of death, part of university education. In 1973,Time magazine reported that about 70 American colleges and schools offered courses on the subject.

He was a big man with a bigger voice. Leviton loved the opera — it matched his intensity. Like opera star Luciano Pavarotti, he carried a handkerchief. He often became so animated during his lectures that he had to dry the sweat from his brow and bald head.

Nothing was untouchable. Sometimes, Campanelli recalled, Leviton walked around campus wearing an orange T-shirt that read, “Sex and death, death and sex: Nothing is taboo.”

In the 1970s, he started an adult health and development program, which included a course on sexuality, to teach 20-somethings what it’s like to get old. In another course, he made students cover their eyes with plastic wrap and stuff cotton balls in their ears to simulate sight and hearing loss.

“Right off, you knew he was a different sort of teacher,” said former student Kevin Carroll.

Leviton also matched students with elderly people in the Washington area who arrived by the busload for Saturday activities and summer camps organized through the program. They came for companionship and in return showed the students how to age.

“We like to think of it as an intergenerational love-in,” Leviton told The Post in 1979.

Leviton retired in 2006. Until the end of his career, he focused on the topic that had most inspired him: the end of life.

***

In the months since Leviton’s death, his loved ones have confronted their grief without the one person who probably knew the most about it.

“The two of us talked about … what it was going to be like,” his wife said. “... You could say that I was very prepared, but you’re still very shocked.”

“Death always comes as a surprise,” as Leviton once told The Washington Post.

Leviton’s influence lives on in his students. Today, Campanelli teaches human sexuality at George Washington University.

Carroll, who said he never forgot the elderly friends he made through Leviton’s program, is a neuropsychologist specializing in geriatrics.

Ursula Nogic, a painter who used to work in the Prince George’s County department of aging, says Leviton’s teachings still resonate. “He helped formulate a more positive outlook on the whole aging experience for me,” she said. “And that’s huge.”

Memories of Leviton also linger with Geraldine Sottek, the mother of a young woman, Susan, who died of viral encephalitis in 1978, during the second semester of her senior year at U-Md. At the time, she was taking Leviton’s death education class.

Every day during the month Susan spent in a hospital intensive care unit, Leviton called to check on her. He reported the news to her classmates, so they could learn about dying through Susan’s death.

The calls, Susan’s mother recently recalled, were very comforting. He “made such an impression.”

Emily Langer is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at langere@washpost.com.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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