When a boss is so much more

Light Publisher/CEO Larry Levin and Editor Ellen Futterman at the Jewish Light’s 50th anniversary gala in 2013.  Levin is leaving the Light at the end of this year.

Ellen Futterman, Editor

When a boss is so much more

On my kitchen counter sits a tiny stainless steel clock, no bigger than a golf ball, which stopped working years ago. Chances are you wouldn’t notice it unless I pointed it out. But I keep it there because my late friend Harriet gave it to me, and seeing it every day makes me smile and think of her.

Great friendships are like that. Whether you live nearby or far away, even in death, great friendships endure and forever remain in your heart. And though no reminders are necessary, sometimes a tangible token of that friendship, something you can hold onto like the clock in my kitchen, serves as a touchstone and provides comfort, triggering so many fond memories.

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendships recently because Larry Levin is leaving the St. Louis Jewish Light at the end of the year. As Publisher/CEO of the paper, Larry is technically my boss. But working together over the past eight years, I have come to regard him less as a boss and more as my work husband and a great friend.

Initially, when I wrote this column, it was to brag about all that Larry has done during his eight-and-a-half-year tenure at the Light: How he built a collective vision, professional team and structure that has helped the Light win more than 30 national and regional journalism awards; began a paid subscription model, in collaboration with Jewish Federation of St. Louis, to help grow the financial health of the paper; expanded the paper’s Publishers Society of donors who contribute $500 or more to the Light each year, tripled monthly pageviews on stljewishlight.com since 2010, and increased Facebook likes by 50 percent in the last two years alone. I could go on enumerating the many platforms and initiatives Larry has either envisioned or encouraged me and the rest of the staff at the Light to pursue. While all of that is important and substantive, what I am going to truly miss about Larry is his sense of humor, his kindness, his judgment, his even-handedness, his rumpled fashion statements and the inimitable way he gets under my skin like only a (work) husband, boss and great friend can.

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Take, for example, a typical Monday morning. In walks Larry to my office, smiling and refreshed, genuinely wanting to hear, in detail, about my weekend, firing off question after question. There I sit, behind my desk, half-asleep and distracted, not really wanting to answer or for that matter, talk . . . to anyone. But it’s Larry and before I know it, I perk up and we’re laughing over something or other as I rehash the last few days and ask what he and his wife Peggy were up to. 

Maybe the test of a great friend is always feeling better after you spend even a few minutes together. I know that is true of how I feel when I’m around Larry.

In the eight years we have worked together, I can’t remember ever arguing with Larry, or leaving the office mad. That said, our news judgment didn’t always align. Occasionally, one of us felt more strongly about a particular story being on Page One, or questioned the news value of another. As publisher, I assumed he would have the last word, yet he always solicited my judgment, deferring to it if I thoroughly explained why I felt my decision best served our readers. 

Perhaps the most valuable lesson Larry taught me as a boss is the art of collaboration — to listen to each other, to problem-solve critically, to keep your ego in check and to come to a resolution that best fits the mission of your organization; in the Light’s case, to inform, inspire and connect the St. Louis Jewish community. Not much different than what’s needed to keep a marriage strong and healthy.

One of my favorite Larry stories has to do with the night he and Peggy got married three years ago. Actually, I suppose this story is more about me than him, but it speaks to our relationship as work spouses and friends. 

The weather on this particular January eve was awful, so much so that even though my real-life husband Jeff and I allowed ourselves plenty of time, we arrived at the wedding venue a few minutes late. Unbeknownst to Larry and Peggy, the dictator, I mean venue coordinator, wouldn’t allow us into the room where the ceremony had just begun. 

“What do you mean you’re not going to let me in?” I demanded. The coordinator refused to budge.

Jeff and a few other “latecomers” watched in disbelief as I did what I had to do. In one bold move, I shimmied my hips and used them to shove her aside, open the door and walk in. Who was this broad to tell me I couldn’t be a witness to the marriage of my work husband, my boss, and more importantly, one of my closest friends? 

To be honest, I always knew the Light wouldn’t be Larry’s last rodeo. He’s one of these ridiculously skilled people who chooses a job where he can make a difference, then makes that difference in spades and leaves the organization much healthier and more robust than when he got there. That certainly has been the case with the Light.

Larry works to make the people who work with him so much better. As part of his management team, I know I have become a more effective leader under his tutelage. He inspires confidence by having a clear vision, showing empathy and being a strong coach. He has taught me that being a good manager sometimes means making unpopular decisions, and that that’s OK as long as it puts the organization as a whole in a better place.

As he was cleaning out his office this week, Larry offered me a little token, joking that it was something to remember him by. 

I laughed, as if I really needed something. As if we wouldn’t talk regularly and see each other often after he leaves.

Still, I took it. It was a Scotch tape holder.

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