Philip Levine Photo credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Philip Levine. Photo credit: Jim Wilson/ New York Times

It’s curious sometimes just how quickly interesting people can come and go in one’s life, and even more compelling how service can provide a framework for these exchanges. This is how I felt upon meeting Mr. Philip Levine.

It was early and gray the morning of January 23, 2015. I was fresh off my Fiji trip with that new joy for service in my soul. I was determined to share some of it as I went from room to room taking meal orders in my classy volunteer garb. Every time I volunteer at St. Agnes I meet at least one person who likes to stop and share advice or stories between meal-planning, and this day, it was Philip Levine. He seemed to be just an average patient, but he intrigued me somehow.

After we’d planned his simple meal, we somehow got on the subject of travel, or perhaps culture first, I can’t remember. I told him a bit about serving in Fiji, and he nonchalantly mentioned all the places he’s been (which were so many I can hardly recall them now). I’m 100% Portuguese, and so he told me tales of the beauty of Portugal, and highly recommended that I travel there. He collaborated with a Portuguese man on a book of poetry once. “You’re a POET?!” I exclaimed, a little too excitedly, “where can I buy some of your works?” (His heart would begin to beat too hard at intervals, and he’d have to stop, breathe, and rest for a few minutes, the pulsing in his neck was visible and very rapid, but I was patient. I felt that I brought a bit too much energy.) He said no need, and he gave me one of his books on the spot! It was titled “News of the World.” He continued his story, but throughout, casually mentioned prizes, professorships, etc., as I marveled at his achievements and humility. He was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a professor emeritus at Fresno State, to name a few contributions. I was so inspired. I cracked open the book, and found a voice for the average soul, and in some particular ones, the Fresno soul. I asked him to sign it, and he did, although it was a visible struggle. I thanked him, and we chatted a bit more, but soon I could see he needed rest and I needed to curb my curiosity. I bid him good bye and get well.

Levine Inspiration

Sometimes, you walk out of a hospital room subconsciously accepting that you will probably never see a person again, whether by healing and return to the daily grind or by the final departure. Other times, it hits you.

It wasn’t until after he passed a few weeks ago that I learned just how influential Mr. Levine really was to Fresno State and the realm of poetry. How fortunate I was to chance to meet the man! He used his gift to turn our Fresno experience into art–a service indeed. He enjoyed jazz music, and collaborated with Dr. Benjamin Boone, a professor with a wonderful commitment to service-learning, in setting some of his works to music. The project is just about done, you can listen to some tracks here.  Dr. Boone described him as “spontaneous,” and said Levine “had a confidence in his work–in art–in our project that was refreshing.” I would have loved to have Levine as a professor here at Fresno State.

Service has brought me to bizarre places, introduced me to incredible people, and filled my life with so much meaning. This is just one instance of amazing learning and a fun connection I was given through first my excitement surrounding service abroad, and my actual presence as a St. Agnes volunteer. I won’t soon forget my fortunately-timed meeting with Philip Levine and his quiet, confident love of poetry that is such a beautiful contribution to our community.

Have you ever made an unforgettable connection at a service opportunity? Who has inspired you?

~Ambassador Lilliana

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