Mike Levine, executive editor of the Middletown Times Herald-Record, died Sunday morning at his home after a heart attack. He was 54.
During his tenure, the newspaper was named New York’s Newspaper of Distinction three times by the Associated Press. The paper’s Sunday sports section was twice named one of the top 10 in the nation by the Associated Press Sports Editors.
Born in Manhattan on May 2, 1952, Levine began working at the Record in July 1980, after serving as the editor of Heights-Inwood, a weekly newspaper in Manhattan.
“I remember the first time he saw a deer in Sullivan County,” said reporter Steve Israel. “He saw this big animal in Glen Spey by the side of the road, and he didn’t know what it was.”
In 1983 Levine became a columnist, and his stories celebrating the spirit of everyday people earned state and national awards. Some were featured in Reader’s Digest and in “Best Newspaper Stories of 1990,” published by the Poynter Institute.
Levine served as the newspaper’s writing coach and city editor before becoming executive editor in 1999. He left in 2001 to work as senior editor at ESPN the Magazine in New York City, where his worked helped the magazine earn the 2002 award for General Excellence by the American Society of Magazine Editors. He returned to the Record as executive editor in 2002.
Levine also co-authored two children’s sports books on family values.
Lou Heimbach, a former Orange County executive who often crossed swords with Levine said, “He had established himself as a very thoughtful, insightful champion of the people. I didn’t always agree with what he said, but you had to respect what he believed.”
Levine is survived by his wife, Ellen, and their children.
Funeral plans were incomplete Sunday evening.
UPDATE His newspaper carried the following editorial on Monday.
Mike Levine was at heart a columnist. He looked at life with a columnist’s instinctual attraction for the compelling story, be it outrageous political shenanigans or individual tales of heroism or tragedy.
For many years, as a columnist for the Record, he told those stories with his own brand of personal journalism. You always knew where he stood on an issue and he didn’t shy away from criticizing the so-called power brokers. If you were one of those and you messed up ? especially if you messed over the taxpayers ? you got a Skunky. The not-so-subtle message: You stink.
The other side of that, of course, was his compassion for those who were wronged, by self-serving politicians or just life in general. At telling those stories, Mike had no peer. You could not read one of those Levine columns without being moved to tears or outrage. Sometimes both.
When Mike became editor of this paper ? twice ? he brought that columnist’s attitude and approach to the news pages. In the past few years, his influence on the Record ? the kind of newspaper it should be ? was profound. The unspoken truth of the matter is that newspaper editors can come and go and do a good job of covering the news, but not leave any significant lasting impression beyond the newsroom. Not Mike.
The Record today is very much Mike Levine’s paper. It may not be doing everything the way he wished it would be done, but it’s undeniably a reflection of his principles, his interests, his compassion, his sense of outrage at injustice and concern for the well-being of the community in which he lived.
Mike was nothing if not persistent about making sure the paper covered the news that mattered to its readers ? their children, their schools, their taxes, their fun. Their quality of life. Cover it and explain it. Help them deal with it. Feel their pain, share their joys. Try to fix things. Be a good neighbor as well as a good newspaper.
His persistence in this approach at times may have seemed pathological to some editors and reporters (and editorial writers), but that never stopped Mike. Find out what the readers think. Get it on the Web. Get involved and get them involved.
I worked with Mike for a quarter of a century as editor and colleague. And lest anyone think he was all work and no play, let it be known that he was a true sports fan (he actually once left the Record to become a hockey editor, of all things), loved music and enjoyed the absurdity of politics.
Mike used to brag that he was the first journalist to promote George Pataki, then a little-known state legislator from Peekskill, for governor. That stemmed from an interview Mike and I did with Pataki when he first ran for the state Assembly. He walked into the Record conference room, looking and sounding all Bill-Bradley-like, seeking the paper’s endorsement, which he got. Later, when he ran for governor, he got the passionate support of Mike Levine, columnist.
But politicians being what they are and Mike being what he was, the love affair did not ? indeed, could not ? last. Somewhere, in some cardboard box of memories of his job, New York’s former governor has a Skunky, courtesy of Mike Levine. For messing over the taxpayers.
Mike Levine was a columnist at heart.