"I'll just say this...when you are known everywhere, simply by your first name, that say's you are special," said Georgia State Senator Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), speaking of former DeKalb County CEO and State Senator Liane Levetan.
There almost is not a time in my life that I can't recall Liane, pronounced, Lee Ah Nu. At first, she was part of a well-organized neighborhood car pool, dropping us off at elementary school. Even then I could tell she was somehow different than the other moms...though I wasn't quite sure exactly how.
Jewish and Austrian born, Liane Levetan and her family escaped Hitler while she was a child, making a long, arduous journey to freedom, finally arriving in America in 1951. Levetan would go on to leave many legacies and lasting marks across Georgia, and particularly in her adopted 'hometown' of DeKalb County, which she would later lead as the first woman elected as the county's CEO. Liane raised her family, with her entrepreneur husband Phil Levetan, and though her longest career has been in real estate, she began her life in public service as an educator. Her area of focus was special education, and Liane chose to begin her work with developmentally disabled youths and adults while Jimmy Carter was Governor of Georgia.
During that era, the state and federal governments began the move away from institutionalization, and began the shift from the label of mental retardation to the present day, "developmentally delayed." The state hospitals and institutions, principally in Milledgeville, Georgia began their long road to closure, and more enlightened communities, such as DeKalb County, began to offer group homes and other social services, following passage of the Mandatory Education Act.
Ms. Levetan taught originally at the Fairhaven School and Hamilton High School, before she was elected to serve as a County Commissioner from District 2 in 1973. A lifelong Democrat, Levetan was far from being a quiet, retiring housewife, and she became the community's champion for a bond referendum to fund many improvements in the county, including what is now known as the DeKalb Services Center, initially able to daily serve a population of as many as 200 with severe developmental delays. To accomplish her goal, Levetan would reach across the aisle and enlist the support of one of DeKalb's few GOP County Commission chairs, Bob Guhl.
The DeKalb Services Center of today offers multiple therapies, job and skills training, family counseling and many other programs, all at no cost to citizens of DeKalb County and their families. The facility, still just off Peachtree Road near Ogelthorpe University in Brookhaven, Georgia, fronts Brookhaven Park and was opened in October of 1978 to serve the needs of infants, children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. At the recent 40th Anniversary Celebration of the DeKalb Services Center, by the DeKalb Community Service Board, Levetan recalled that tough bond referendum battle, and her recruitment of another 'Champion' to lead the call to serve others.
While vacationing in Miami at the famed Fountainbleau Hotel, Levetan was able to meet and lunch with world-heavyweight champion, Mohammed Ali, after meeting one of his children on the beach during a chance encounter. Ever resourceful, Levetan coerced Ali intro recording a public service announcement, touting the bond referendum and providing services for the developmentally disabled in DeKalb County, by funding and building the DeKalb Services Center. Sadly, the audio cassette recorder which Phil Levetan located in Miami as well as the audio cassette are lost to time and memory, but Ali's message resonated, and resulted in a solid base of African-American community support for the bond referendum. Funding the Services Center construction passed, while not all of the questions on the ballot and bond referendum were quite as fortunate.
Levetan understood, then and now, as an elected official and as a community volunteer and advocate, very little of great substance, importance or difficulty can be accomplished alone. Yes, she was and is a catalyst, and someone who does not take well to the words, "...that can't be done." And even now in her 8th decade, she remains a believer in the ability and will of the community to do good, support others and work together in spite of differences in age, race, gender and education/background.
Following closure in 1996 of the Georgia Retardation Center in Dunwoody, that land would later become a large, multi-use park in the new city of Dunwoody in 2010. Liane Levetan Brook Run Park now host community events, food truck nights and fundraisers year round. And Levetan was again recently honored by as "Community Champion," by the DeKalb Community Service Board, with a plaque and portrait commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Services Center. Without Levetan's strong voice as well as well-placed nudge of Ali, that center might never have existed. Reaching across the aisle, building consensus and community support should perhaps be more commonplace, but until it is again, we thankfully still have exemplars around like Liane to help lead the way.