Lee Loventhal: Citizen Exemplar

by Jean Roseman.

“His heart was as big as he was, and he was a big man . . .” (Herbert Kohn, former Executive Secretary of the Y.M.H.A.). “He was a terrific force in the Jewish and in the non-Jewish community. He participated in everything” (Percy Cohen, lifelong Nashville resident). “He probably did more for Nashville than any other citizen in the last century” (a proud nephew).

Lee Loventhal poster courtesy of Vanderbilt University library

These accolades characterize Lee J. Loventhal, a man of limitless energy. Born in East Nashville in 1875, he was the son of L. J. and Mary Sulzbacher Loventhal, a Jewish couple of German ancestry. Salutatorian of his Fogg High School class in 1892, he entered Vanderbilt intending to study law, but his father’s death in 1895 left him — a 19-year-old college student — responsible for his mother, his six siblings, and his father’s bustling insurance business. Not only did he manage the company successfully, but he also continued to work diligently at his studies, graduating from Vanderbilt with honors. His insurance company still thrives today, the oldest of its kind in Nashville under continuous ownership by one family.

Loventhal was a citizen exemplar in business as well as in service to the Nashville community. There was hardly an aspect of civic life in which he was not involved. For a quarter of a century he served on the Park Commission, helping develop the magnificent system of parks and playgrounds that still enhance life in Nashville. His concern for education led him to accept the position of Commissioner of Watkins Institute. He also served on the Board of Trustees and various important committees of Fisk University, whose gratitude for his support is recorded in this inscription: “Lee J. Loventhal helped to carry into our day the splendid American tradition of faith in the education and training of young men and women irrespective of color which inspired the founding of Fisk University at the close of the Civil War.”

Always loyal to Vanderbilt, Loventhal served on its Board of Trust for 22 years, donating both time and money to the university. He established the Lee J. Loventhal Prize in Public Speaking with an annual gift perpetuated in his will. Author Bill Carey names him as a major force behind fundraising for the new Vanderbilt stadium in the 1920s. When the university offered a degree in business administration, businessman Loventhal was invited to be a guest lecturer.

His generosity also extended to the Y.M.C.A. Graduate School. When this institution cooperated with Vanderbilt, Peabody, and Scarritt to form the Joint University Libraries system, Loventhal worked tirelessly on the campaign, donating generously himself. His very presence on a board lent it stature: the Public Health Nursing Society, the Nashville Boy Scouts, the Nashville Boys’ Club, and the Tennessee Children’s Home-Finding Society all benefited from his efforts.

During World War I he served as state treasurer of United War Work in Tennessee, collecting and sending the National Treasury over two million dollars to support the war effort. Meanwhile, in his role as finance chairman of the local Red Cross, he successfully raised contingency funds to keep that organization active.

Young Men’s/Young Women’s Hebrew Association Building. (Postcard from NHN Collection)

At the end of the war, as society readjusted, many charities emerged. It was not uncommon then to find each street corner “worked” by well-intentioned solicitors, to the great discomfort of passers-by. Loventhal and a few others realized they could adapt the wartime effort to peacetime causes. Their vision and initiative gave rise in 1925 to the Nashville Community Chest, which coordinated fund raising with disbursements to charities. He himself served as its first president and sat on the executive committee for many years.

Amid his many commitments, Loventhal was also a charter member of the Kiwanis Club, a Mason, a Knight Commander of the Scottish Rite, and a Shriner. He helped found the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and campaigned vigorously to establish what is now the Gordon Jewish Community Center, serving for six years as its first president and working many more years as its treasurer. So vital was he in the creation of the Y.M.H.A. that a picture of him, inscribed “Our First President,” hung for years in the entrance of the building. According to a well-known anecdote of the time, a young Jewish lad who spent much time at the Y.M.H.A. was asked by a teacher whether he knew the name of the first president. Without hesitation, the boy responded, “Lee J. Loventhal.”

Devoted to Jewish causes, Loventhal served on the boards of the Federated Jewish charities, the B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge, and the Vine Street Temple. He also gave active support to several Jewish institutions outside Nashville: the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the Leo N. Levy Hospital in Hot Springs, and the Old Folks’ Home in Memphis.

Despite his busy schedule, Loventhal was first and foremost a family man. His 1899 marriage to Gertrude Moses of Baltimore produced two daughters, one of whom died in childhood, and two beloved grandchildren.

Men playing checkers at Young Men’s Hebrew Association in Nashville, about 1930 (photo by Marvin W. Wiles)

Lee J. Loventhal died in 1940 after a four-month illness. In 1944 the Joint University Libraries* acquired a memorial fund from his family and friends to establish a collection of Jewish books in his honor, with specially commissioned bookplates designed by artist Robert Gregory Gifford. The collection upholds the ideals that guided Loventhal’s life: education and service to one’s fellow man.

* A trust indenture from Nashville, Tennessee established the Joint University Libraries on December 28, 1938. Libraries included in the cooperative are those of Vanderbilt University, George Peabody College for Teachers, and Scarritt College for Christian Workers.

Jewish Federation Archives
Vanderbilt Special Collections

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