Wallace Levin
Wallace Levin

Wallace Levin, backer of U.S. vets and an S.F. sleuth, dies at 91

In Hebrew, Wallace Levin might have been labeled a shomer, a watcher or a guardian. For most of his life, Levin stood guard, joining the Army during the Korean War, later serving as a member of the California National Guard Reserve and always championing the nation’s veterans.

A third-generation San Franciscan and member of San Francisco congregations Beth Sholom and Emanu-El, Wallace Levin passed away from heart failure on July 19. He was 91.

“He just believed in service to the community and the country,” said his son, Michael Levin of Boca Raton, Florida. “He was very patriotic in the true sense of the word. He wanted to help others and add value to our society.”

In many ways, Levin’s life encapsulated the promise the 20th century held for Jewish Americans. His Yiddish-speaking grandparents emigrated from Poland and Russia to San Francisco around the time of the 1906 earthquake. Out of the rubble, his grandfather  co-founded with his brothers the General Theatrical Co., one of Northern California’s first and, for many years, largest movie theater chains.

Three generations of Levins (from left): Wallace Levin, his son Michael Levin and grandson Matt Levin.
Three generations of Levins (from left): Wallace Levin, his son Michael Levin and grandson Matt Levin.

Levin was a product of San Francisco public schools, attending Commodore Sloat Elementary, Aptos Junior High and Lowell High School. It was at Lowell that he met his future wife, Arlene Owens. After graduating from College of the Pacific in Stockton, he joined the Army. He served 19 months in Korea during the conflict there, working as a communications expert.

After his discharge, he returned to the family business, managing theaters in San Francisco and Sacramento. But he never stopped volunteering. He served in the California National Guard Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1997 after 20 years of federal and state service.

As the cinema business consolidated and General Theatrical sold off its theaters, Levin adjusted, at first owning and managing the Hub Theater on Market Street and later launching a legal services business. This led to Levin’s next venture, as an investigator for the San Francisco attorney’s office, a post that at times connected him with the Anti-Defamation League as it combated antisemitism. Levin retired from that job at age 86, making him at the time the oldest city employee on record.

Wallace Levin with his wife, Arlene
Wallace Levin with his wife, Arlene.

“Wally’s cunning, determination, sweet nature and good old-fashioned street smarts proved spectacular in every way,” S.F. City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement. “He prided himself on taking on tough assignments, finding those who didn’t want to be found. Wally was a joy. He was a character in the best sense of the word. He never tired of doing the right thing, and we miss him deeply.”

Describing his father as a true role model for him, Michael served as a Mountain View police officer and, later, a Secret Service agent, providing presidential protection in the Clinton White House and later working on national cybersecurity and computer crimes. “His dedication to service rubbed off on me,” Michael said of his dad.

Wallace Levin never forgot his comrades in arms. In addition to serving as a post commander for two groups, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Jewish War Veterans, he also became a highly visible local advocate for veterans. Former Mayor Willie Brown appointed him the city’s director of Veterans Affairs, and for years he oversaw the Veterans Day and Memorial Day parades down Market Street, and was instrumental in the establishment of the city’s Korean War Memorial.

Former San Francisco supervisor, state senator, San Mateo County judge and current J. board member Quentin Kopp remembers his friend as a relentless advocate for veterans.

“After I was elected to the [state] Senate, [Levin] asked me to introduce a resolution to rename the part of Highway 101 that runs through the Presidio as Veterans Highway,” Kopp said. “That required both the affirmative vote of a majority of the Senate and Assembly, which wasn’t difficult.”

Levin continued volunteering into his late 80s. His son calls his father’s appointment by former Mayor Ed Lee to the city’s War Memorial board of trustees “his crowning achievement.”

The man seemed indestructible to family and friends, but when Arlene, Levin’s beloved wife of 64 years, passed away in 2020, something changed. “He was the classic example of the broken-heart syndrome,” said his son. “My mom passed in October, and his first hospitalization was on Christmas Eve.”

Michael Levin said his father had faith that this country would never forget its veterans. “He was proud to have been a vet and to serve in Korea, but he was more proud to be part of the veterans community. He felt that was his calling.”

Wallace Levin is survived by son Michael Levin of Boca Raton, Florida; daughter Deborah Levin of La Quinta, California; and grandson Mathew Levin of Los Angeles.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.