From Combat Pilot To Businessman, Levinger Was A Man Of Service

Chuck Levinger’s family surprised him for his 80th birthday with a reunion in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a ride in a AT-6 airplane, like the one he had flown as a combat pilot during the Korean War.

At Fantle’s department store in Yankton, Chuck Levinger delighted customers for decades by offering them special experiences — whether it was monkeys on display or an elevator that was a rarity at the time for the region.

The Yankton roots for the Fantle and Levinger families date back to Dakota Territory days in the 1870s. They became well known for their iconic four-story retail store in downtown Yankton.

Large crowds from throughout the region came to the store for shopping, eating lunch or just meeting others.

Steve Levinger, one of Chuck’s three sons (along with Jeff and Jay), recalled the people who came to see the monkeys while in the store.

“One fond memory was the monkeys that lived in a cage on the second floor. Their names were Fannie and Les, kind of a combination name for Fantle’s,” Steve said. “Kids who were shopping with their parents loved to visit the monkeys and the merry-go-round on the second floor.”

One day a week, the Levinger boys had the entire store to themselves.

“My dad would often work in his office on Sundays catching up on paperwork, and he’d take the three of us along with him. We’d have the run of the store!” Steve said.

“We’d ride the elevator up and down repeatedly, help ourselves to food in the cafeteria and play hide and go seek. One day, the monkeys escaped from their cage, and we spent hours trying to corral them while they were swinging from the pipes along the ceiling.”

The store was sold, and another era ended when Chuck Levinger died April 18 at age 91. He and Leta, his wife of 66 years, had moved to Omaha about 2½ years ago. They continued their connections to Yankton even after leaving the community.

Chuck Levinger grew up living an idyllic life similar to one found in a Norman Rockwell painting, Steve said. He rode horses at his grandfather’s farm, grabbing his shotgun and heading with his trusty Labrador across the street to a cornfield for hunting pheasants. The site would later become Fantle Memorial Park, with the stipulation that a swimming pool and a veterans memorial be built on the location.

Also while growing up, Chuck and his brothers ran a fireworks stand during and summer and built treehouses in their backyard.

“But what really piqued his interest was the wild blue yonder! He was so intrigued by airplanes and flying that he was taking flying lessons and then soloing with his dog as his co-pilot BEFORE he was old enough to drive himself to the airport. Can you imagine this young kid (14 years old) riding his bike to the airport only to then hop into a Piper Cub and taking to the skies?”

Drawn to the discipline, Chuck attended the Culver Military Academy during summers in the 1940s. “I’m sure this is where he learned that you shouldn’t have your elbows on the table when you’re eating, you need to shave EVERY day, (and) every tool has its place on a pegboard, in a drawer or whatever,” Steve said.

After graduating from high school, Chuck attended Yankton College for a year. He then transferred to the University of Nebraska, where he met Leta Joy Weiner on a blind date set up by a fraternity brother.

With the Korean War breaking out, Chuck enlisted in the Air Force to pursue his passion for flying. He flew 77 missions from December 1952 to April 1953 in an F-84 Thunderjet as a fighter pilot. “Occasionally, he drew enemy fire and, although he was prepared a few times to eject from his damaged aircraft, he was always able to return to base safely,” Steve said.

During his 1½ years in Korea, Chuck and Leta frequently wrote letters back and forth. “Rarely would Dad talk about Korea, and not many people knew he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Presidential Citation and other medals. He was an extremely humble, matter-of-fact guy,” Steve said.

Chuck returned stateside during summer 1953 and was assigned to Luke Air Force Base outside of Phoenix, where he served as a flight instructor teaching Greek and Turkish pilots.

While stationed in Arizona, Chuck needed flight time to maintain his sharpness and would often “check out” a jet for a flight to Lincoln and a visit with Leta and friends back in Nebraska.

“I can only imagine what Mom and others thought of this 23-year-old flyboy dropping in for a visit,” Steve said.

After a handful of dates, Chuck surprised Leta with his fraternity pin on New Year’s Eve 1953. They were engaged in spring 1954 and married during a stormy day the following August.

“The reception was held at the Blackstone Hotel, and because the storms had knocked out power, the room was lit by candlelight,” Steve said. “At some point, my mom backed into one of the open flames and her veil caught on fire. Chuck, being the consummate hero, put the fire out with his bare hands!”

The newlyweds settled in Phoenix for a few years until Chuck left the military to join the family business in Yankton. Raising their family, their three sons found joy in weekly wrestling matches with their father.

“Mom was clearly the disciplinarian and I’m sure it made her pull her hair out,” Steve said. “We knew Dad meant business when he’d calmly look at us and say ‘Boys, Boys, Boys.’”

As one of a handful of Jewish families in Yankton, the Levingers attended Jewish holiday services in Sioux City, the son said. Chuck was proud to be Jewish and raised his three sons in the faith, he added.

Despite working long hours, Chuck always attended his sons’ sporting events, concerts and other activities. He also taught his boys the value of hard work and responsibility by holding jobs at the store.

The Levinger boys helped organize the annual “Coat Caravan” with rotating mega-sales on coats among Fantle’s stores in Yankton, Sioux City and LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

Many employees spent their entire careers working at Fantle’s, Steve said, recalling his grandfather and father spending a great deal of time greeting customers on the floor and stressing impeccable customer service.

The Levingers also played together, enjoying outdoor activities and extended summer trips. One year, they visited New York City, Washington and several Civil War sites. Another summer, they drove out to California.

While a patient person, Chuck also enjoyed adventure.

“Dad’s need for speed was tough to quench,” Steve said. “Sports cars, snowmobiles, a ski boat, racing sailboats … whatever it was, he always looked for ways for the family to have fun together.”

After returning from the military in 1955, Chuck served Yankton in many capacities, including city commissioner for two years (1964-66) and as interim president and board member at First Dakota National Bank.

Yankton City Manager Amy Leon served with Levinger on the Rotary Club.

“While in Rotary together, Chuck provided me a wealth of knowledge about our community’s history,” she said. “I appreciated his kind words of encouragement as a leader and advice on city issues. We were always happy to see him back at Rotary in the spring after snow-birding (being gone for the winter).”

Yankton pilot Jake Hoffner worked with Levinger on the airport board.

“(Chuck) was highly respected in the aviation community and was very supportive and resourceful in regards to our T-38 static display aircraft project,” Hoffner said. “He was a joy to visit with about his amazing aviation career. There was never a dull moment listening to stories about his past military experience.”

At First Dakota National Bank, wealth and trust officer Todd Woods worked with the Levingers as customers and with Chuck when he served as a bank board member.

“Chuck and Leta were two of the pillars of the community for many years,” Woods said. “You could see their desire to give back, and it continues now with the (Yankton) swimming pool as one choice for donating memorials for Chuck.”

The Levingers have also listed Yankton College as one of the requested choices. Besides attending the school for one year, Chuck served on its board and received an honorary doctorate degree from the school in 2008.

“I think he really enjoyed the smaller, more intimate education that YC offered. I think he realized that YC was an important component to the community and helped it flourish,” Steve Levinger said. “When it closed (in 1984), he was supportive of (its new role as) the prison as he recognized how it would benefit the local economy.”

In the area of mental wellness, Levinger contributed his business and finance knowledge on the Lewis & Clark Behavioral Health Services’ (LCBHS) board from 1977-2014.

LCBHS Executive Director Tom Stanage worked with Levinger for 20 years and credited him as instrumental in the growth of the mental health center with the purchase of the Yankton College property at 1028 Walnut Street.

With the purchase, Levinger helped oversee the growth of LCBHS services from about 30 employees in 1977 to around 130 in 2014. All three floors of LCBHS are occupied, and a separate building was purchased for administrative offices.

“I believe that Chuck’s dedication to the development of community-based mental health services is one of the reasons that there is less stigma (surrounding mental health) today than there was in the 1970s and 1980s,” Stanage said.

In addition, Levinger worked with developing Cedar Village Assisted Living and rehabbing the former Sir Charles apartments/Gurney hotel, among many other decisions. Those projects provided expanded services.

Chuck and Leta Levinger taught their sons to be independent, Steve said. The boys attended out-of-state colleges and carved their own path.

In later years, Chuck developed health concerns. His underwent his first quadruple heart bypass procedure at age 51, with another one following 13 years later. He later developed Parkinson’s Disease, which began to show itself when golfing with Steve at an annual Father’s Day golf tournament.

“We usually finished middle of the pack, but were always best dressed as we bought each other matching outfits as Father’s Day presents,” Steve said. “Signs of his Parkinson’s Disease started hampering his putting, and one year after missing a two-foot putt for par, he looked at me with disappointment etched on his face. I told him to shake it off, I just enjoyed being with him.”

The family reunited in Scottsdale, Arizona, for Chuck’s 80th birthday, surprising him with a ride in an AT-6 airplane with another Air Force veteran as the pilot.

“As this was the first plane he trained in with the Air Force, Dad was beyond thrilled and even took the stick for a while,” Steve said. “We’ve got great photos of him in his old flight jacket with a beaming smile on his face.”

With Chuck’s passing, Steve pointed to his parents’ strong lifetime partnership.

“Throughout an amazing 66 years of marriage, Mom and Dad were inseparable. It was truly a love affair,” he said. “They were by each other’s sides through health challenges, business challenges … the best of times and the worst of times.”

A major part of their lives were spent dedicated to Yankton, Steve said.

“My mom said he just wanted to represent the community and make Yankton a better place,” he added.

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter

(2) comments

mleibfarth

This is a great story of a beloved individual- husband, father, serviceman to his country, community, friend. A generous, talented, loving human giving to his community in every way. I only wish I could have known him and Leta sooner... thank you so much for a very comprehensive story of a great man. Well done

Jeannovotny

My sympathy to Leta and their sons. It was so fun to read of all of Chuck’s adventures and accomplishments along with all the things the Fantle and Levinger families did for Yankton. His was a life well-lived. Peace to all of you.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.