From behind the counter at Cecil's Delicatessen in St. Paul, David Leventhal would ask about customers' parents and children, remembering their ages and maiden names. Most importantly, he remembered their orders.
Gov. Rudy Perpich, for instance, always got a Reuben. But Leventhal gave lesser-known regulars the same treatment. "Their sandwich hits the table as their butt hits the chair," he told a reporter in 1987.
Leventhal, who with his wife, Sheila, owned and operated the Highland Park institution for more than four decades and ensured the family business would pass to his children and grandchildren, died of cancer Feb. 2. The longtime St. Paul resident was 85.
Alongside Sheila, Leventhal charmed customers and baked a beautiful challah. But he was most comfortable in the deli's basement, where he paid the bills and kept track of sales.
"He always paid the bills on time, and the employees always got their checks — even in the bad times," Sheila Leventhal said. "And there were bad times I never knew about."
It was Sheila's father, Cecil Glickman, who founded the Jewish deli in 1949 with $600 in borrowed money. Leventhal started working there in 1961, the same year he and Sheila married.
He hadn't dreamed of running a restaurant — his interest as a young man was in judo and Japanese culture — but the couple bought the business in 1980. He ran the place with pride.
"Supermarkets have delis," Leventhal said in 2019. "Cecil's is a delicatessen."
Leventhal was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1939. After a kid was stabbed at his school, his parents moved the family to Minneapolis in 1950. He graduated from North High School in 1957 and studied Japanese history at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1961.
David and Sheila met as teenagers and saw each other socially through the years. "His date was mad at him, and my date was in love with somebody else," Sheila said. "We ended up sitting and talking for four hours."
Then they ran into each other at Hillel House near the U campus, and Sheila asked him to go to her dorm's ball. She wore a dress she'd sewn based on a wedding dress pattern. He carried her across the street to save her silk shoes from the slush.
"And that was that," she said. "We went out every Saturday night from that day forward. That was it, the beginning of our life together."
By the time they bought Cecil's, where Sheila had grown up peeling potatoes, Leventhal had worked there for 18 years, according to a St. Paul Pioneer Press article in 2019. "I started out as a baker and a deli clerk," he said, "and then I never left."
Leventhal lived at Cecil's, Sheila said, but he was also busy every weeknight with activities such as an investment club and a poker-playing group that he organized and fed. He volunteered three times a week for more than 50 years at Midway Judo, a nonprofit club on Robert Street that he helped found. A fifth-degree black belt, he taught young people and refereed tournaments, traveling on his own dime.
"One of the things I really liked about him, he didn't have an ego," said Sheilah Seaberg, one of Midway Judo's sensei. "If he wanted to do something, he would train and train until he could do it."
At the club, Leventhal was the one who checked in on folks who hadn't come in lately and who sent thank-you notes to volunteer referees, often tucking a Cecil's gift card inside.
When Leventhal learned that his friend's son, Mitch Chargo, would be studying at the then-William Mitchell College of Law, he invited him to stop by Cecil's. "I had no money," Chargo said. "David made sure to let me know that anytime ... I could come by Cecil's and he would feed me."
Chargo did go, over and over, and Leventhal never let him pay. "He never made me feel like I was taking advantage or that I was somehow the recipient of charity. I've never forgotten that," said Chargo, now an attorney in downtown Minneapolis.
Becca Kvasnik has heard dozens of stories like that since her father's death. "I knew my dad was a good man," she said. "But I'm hearing stuff I never heard before."
In 2020, a stroke robbed Leventhal of his ability to speak. It "made him angry," Kvasnik said. But even when he couldn't drive, he continued to meet with his investment club and his card-playing group. As recently as December, he was still marking the day's sales figures at the deli.
And he kept teaching judo. His family buried him in one of his judo belts.
Besides his wife and daughter Becca, Leventhal's survivors include his sons, Brad and Aaron; daughter, Amy; and seven grandchildren. Services have been held.