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Obituary of Victor T. Le Vine: Political science professor; expert on Mideast, Africa, terrorism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 9, 2010 - Victor T. Le Vine, a Washington University political science professor who was a much sought-after expert on hostages, terrorism, guerrilla warfare and political problems of the Middle East and Northern Africa, and a prolific writer about all things political, died at his home in University City on Friday (May 07) of heart disease. Professor Le Vine, who had open heart surgery a year and a half ago, had spent the past two months at Barnes-Jewish Hospital before coming home several days ago. He was 81.

In a career that spanned more than four decades at Washington University, Professor Le Vine became the “go-to guy” for the media on any kind of unrest in the world.

Speaking Out

Just two weeks and one day after terrorists felled the twin towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, Professor Le Vine wrote “To Defeat The Terror, Fight The Hate,” his second 9-11 oped in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, offering an admonishment for America’s response: “I hope we have not promised ourselves and the world more than we can deliver, and that we will only act after the most careful and fullest appreciation of what is before us.”

He was critical of the Iraq invasion and the prosecution of the war. Writing in the Post-Dispatch in 2007, he said: “The record - our own and that of other major powers, including Russia and France - clearly demonstrates that venturing into military feats without adequate forethought or too much bravado and ambition usually ends up with a frantic search for a viable exit option.”

Professor Le Vine did not shy away from controversial issues in his writings or frequent comments to news media, bolstering his opinions with an inimitable depth of knowledge.

Long-time Post-Dispatch and now Beacon commentary editor, Donna Korando said she always looked forward to an article by Professor Le Vine. “He wrote with clarity and authority,” she said. “His writing was accessible without being dumbed down in any way.”

“He impressed me with his nuanced view of the way the world operates,” said his colleague, friend and neighbor, Andrew Rehfeld, a political science professor at Washington University.

“He understood the complexity of political life and the need to come to know local facts, culture and ideas.”

When he did not like some of his own local facts and culture, he sought to change them. Like the “Caucasians only” clause in the association covenant in the University City neighborhood that he had called home since 1962.

“After moving here in 2001, I often heard the story told that he was instrumental in the '60s in ensuring that a black family could buy the house next to him,” Rehfeld said. “He secured the mortgage, saying it was just something that a decent person would do. It was characteristic of him and his integrity.

“You don’t find characters like him often,” Rehfeld added. “He was very old-school, in a good way – a man of great style and class with gentleness and graciousness.”

A Scholar and a Gentleman

Professor Le Vine was the only son of Russian-born Jews. He was born in Berlin on Dec. 6, 1928. His family moved from Germany to France in 1936 and immigrated to the United States in 1938. They came to New York but soon moved to Altadena, Calif. After high school, he attended Pasadena Junior College, then enrolled at UCLA, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1950. He went on to attend Hastings College of the Law at the University of California.

By now a naturalized citizen, he entered the Army for two years, serving as an intelligence officer during the Korean War because he spoke four languages: Russian, German, French and English. That skill also got him invitations to join both the FBI and the CIA, which he quickly turned down; he was determined to teach.

“He was always an academic at heart,” said his wife of almost 52 years, Nathalie Le Vine, former artistic director of the Ballet Conservatory in St. Louis. “He loved teaching.”

So, following military service, he taught high school in Los Angeles. He later returned to UCLA to earn a master’s degree and to pursue his doctorate in political science. He spent a year in Cameroon as a Fulbright Scholar before completing doctoral work in 1961. That same year, he headed for St. Louis and Washington University.

The classes Professor Le Vine taught included "Terrorism and Terrorists," which analyzes the use of terror as a political weapon. He retired in 2003, well past retirement age, because of his love of teaching. As professor emeritus, he had taught at least one course per semester until last fall, despite “being sick as could be” his wife said, and even had his letter of engagement to teach this fall.

“He was a generous mentor and teacher,” Rehfeld said. “I have never seen a student turned from his door because he was writing or anything else. Students always came first.”

He held visiting appointments at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon and the University of Ghana in Legon, as well as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Professor Le Vine lectured extensively at academic and public forums in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as King Saud and Abdelassiz universities in Saudi Arabia, and at Fudan and Najing universities in China.

A Man of Peace

He had traveled to six Middle Eastern and nearly a dozen African states researching questions of political development, corruption and violence. He is the author or co-author of nine scholarly books and monographs on African politics and more than 50 articles in academic journals. His recent books include “Politics in French-Speaking Africa” and “Non-Formal Politics.”

For nearly two decades, he was a prolific op-ed contributor to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and national publications, expounding on topics ranging from the apprehension of modern-day dictators to whether the U.S. could “win” the “war on terror.” (His answer: “… this is not an ordinary war, and … it cannot be ‘won’ or ‘lost’ in the conventional sense.”)

Although given to the study of the world’s most serious issues, his writing style was sometimes satirical, as in the “Constitutional Amendments, Cont.,” a Post-Dispatch op-ed from 1995. In it he proposed six new constitutional amendments, including as number one “The Truth in Politics Amendment” which, he said, “… would forbid all expressions of hypocrisy and willful lying by elected officials.” For more than 30 years, Professor Le Vine served as a pro bono immigration bar expert witness to help people fleeing repressive governments and seeking asylum in the U.S. His efforts helped save numerous people from torture and death. He recently traveled to testify in an asylum hearing at the Baltimore immigration court.

He was a State Department Consultant on African and Mideast political developments and a consultant to the U.S. Department of State, USIA, and the Peace Corps since 1965. He served as an international elections monitor in Africa, was a consultant to the Eritrean Constitutional Commission and was president of the Centre for International Understanding, a private philanthropic organization dedicated to promoting nonviolent resolution of international conflicts.

“Victor was a humanist, he was not just about the numbers,” Nathalie Le Vine said. “He loved people. He loved to garden and putter around fixing things, and we had season tickets to the opera. We had a wonderful life.”

Professor Le Vine was preceded in death by his parents, Maurice Le Vine and Gilda Hirshberg Le Vine.

In addition to his wife, Nathalie (nee Christian) he is survived by two children, Theodore Vincent Le Vine of Glendale, Calif., and Nicole Vizcarra of St. Louis. He is also survived by four grandchildren, James Vizcarra, Amanda Vizcarra, Jennifer Vizcarra and Christina Bowe, and two great-granddaughters, Sequoia Patt and Emma Vizcarra.

Arrangements are pending for a memorial service at Washington University.

The family would appreciate contributions in Professor Le Vine’s name to a charity of the donor’s choice. Please specify donations are in honor of Victor T. Le Vine, professor emeritus, Washington University.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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