Burton Levin was the U.S. ambassador to Burma when he called his daughter at Carleton College as gunfire raged outside the embassy. It was 1988, during a violent government crackdown on student protesters.
“He held up the phone and I could hear everything,” recalls Levin’s daughter, Alicia Lee-O’Halloran, who was a Carleton student then. His response to the bloodshed, she recalls with pride, was to open the U.S. embassy gates “so the injured protesters could get in.”
It was, she says, one of the more remarkable moments in a diplomatic career that spanned more than three decades and eventually led her father to Northfield as a political science professor at Carleton.
Levin, 86, died of cancer Oct. 31 at his home in Massachusetts.
At Carleton, he was known as a witty storyteller who used his personal experience to bring abstract ideas about international relations and the Cold War alive, said Prof. Al Montero, a colleague in the political science department.
“I know the students just loved him,” Montero said. With his folksy style, Levin was able “to connect with 18-, 19-year-olds who don’t have any living memory, obviously, of the Cold War,” he added. “He enriched our curriculum by bringing his experience, his storytelling, his style.”
Levin, who was born in New York, began his career as a globe-trotting foreign officer with the U.S. State Department in 1954, when he was posted to Taiwan. He met his wife, Lily Lee, there, and served in a variety of diplomatic missions throughout Asia before he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Burma in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.
Levin’s son, Cliff Levin, notes that many diplomats’ families spend their stints overseas in “a very comfortable little enclave surrounding an embassy.” But his father loved to explore and took the family with him. “My father was curious about the local tenor,” he said. “Just getting a real sense of the country beyond where the tourists would roam.”
Once, daughter Ali remembers, they stopped in a remote village in Thailand for a bowl of noodles. On the restaurant wall was an old calendar with a photo of the king of Thailand — and her father. “I looked up,” she said, and shouted, “ ‘There’s a picture of you on the wall!’ ” The proprietor overheard her and gasped, “Oh my God, it’s you!”
In Burma (now Myanmar), Levin’s relationship with the repressive government was more tenuous. “He was not a friend of the Burmese government, [and] they were not fans of him, because he very early on took a humanitarian stance,” said Lee-O’Halloran, now a veterinarian in Minnetonka. At one point, she recalls, her father’s caravan was detained at a military checkpoint as she and her mother waited nervously for him at the embassy. After a tense negotiation, he was allowed through. “Father came in the door and said, ‘I need a martini,’ ” she said.
Eventually, as relations with the government chilled, the family was evacuated, and Levin became the last ambassador to serve in Burma for 22 years.
After retiring from the foreign service, Levin was invited to teach at Carleton as a visiting professor in 1994 and remained until 2013, splitting his time between Minnesota and Massachusetts.
Even while fighting cancer, he retained his passion for world affairs and puckish sense of humor, his family says. “He had plenty to say about [the presidential] election,” said his daughter. In the chemo ward, she said, he announced: “If Trump wins, you can just stop chemotherapy.”
He voted, absentee, days before he died.
In addition to his two children, he is survived by his wife, Lily; son-in-law, Patrick Lee-O’Halloran, and grandchildren Quinn and Elliot. At Levin’s request, no memorial service was held. Carleton is planning a symposium in his honor next June.