Frances Levine, longtime Fresno state supporter, dies at 94
Frances Levine, whose gift to Fresno State of her American Poet Laureate husband’s extensive personal book collection sparked the creation of the Philip Levine Reading Room inside the University Library, died in Fresno on June 13. She was 94 years old.
The generosity of Frances Levine – known to friends as “Franny” – was emblematic of her life in Fresno. For more than 60 years, it was the home of Levine House, which has always provided an open door for poets and artists from Fresno and beyond.
Dr. Honora Chapman, dean of the Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities, said Levine’s care and concern for Fresno State students continues to inspire.
“When Franny donated Phil’s library to the University, we were then able to create a beautiful reading room in his memory for all students to enjoy,” Chapman said. “She also offered us beautiful photos and personal prints that enliven this space of poetic art and good humor. Their legacy will surely inspire future generations of student writers to become creative thinkers who make the world a better place, just like Franny and Phil did.
The Reading Room serves as a special-use space for Fresno State’s Master of Fine Arts Program for intimate readings, workshops, interviews and visits by guest authors. Graduate students from the English department meet there regularly for evening seminars.
University President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval said Franny Levine’s impressive legacy at Fresno State ensures that her memory will live on.
“His contributions have elevated our sense of community and fomented our determination to forge a more inclusive and multicultural environment,” said Jiménez-Sandoval. “She was creative, bright and warm. Franny’s fiery presence lit up conversation, thoughtfulness and a sense of togetherness.
Many knew Franny as the wife of Philip Levine, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Fresno State Professor Emeritus of English. She was also, in her own right, a painter and sketchbook designer, a gardener, a chef and cookbook author, and a community volunteer. She loved to write letters to friends, do the daily New York Times crossword puzzles, and read extensively the latest literary and detective fiction novels by Donna Leon and Martin Walker.
Frances Joan Artley was born in 1927 in Hampton, Iowa. His father, Wayne Clifford Artley, was a banker; his mother, Levina Riggs, was an X-ray technician at the local hospital.
She earned a BFA in Drama and an MFA in Costume Design from the University of Iowa. While studying there, she met Phil, who was taking classes at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They married in 1954.
Philip Levine taught at Fresno State from 1958 to 1992, and the Levines remained closely tied to the university’s creative writing program. He also taught at Tufts, Columbia and New York universities, and until Phil’s death in 2015 they maintained homes in Fresno and Brooklyn.
In the family’s early years, Franny Levine worked on costume and set design for college theater productions, according to her son, Mark Levine. But it was his mother’s “bold generosity” and “great sense of morality”, he said, that touched so many.
Throughout her life, Franny Levine produced hundreds of paintings and sketchbooks, most of which were given to friends. Inspired by the family’s travels, she sketched and then painted landscapes from around the world. She drew still lifes of fruit on a table, seasonal flowers in a vase, and views of the window she was standing in front of. Her friend Dianne Hanzlicek said Franny was “happiest when she was drawing” and making art.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Mark Levine said his parents were strong supporters of the civil rights movement and outspoken critics of the Vietnam War. With her friend Joan Poss, Franny Levine volunteered in 1972 to co-publish a cookbook featuring recipes from the founders of the Fresno branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Proceeds went to anti-war efforts. The organization’s cookbook remains a coveted treasure among local activists.
Franny Levine continued to write cookbooks, published locally by Bette Peterson’s Poppy Lane Books. The cookbooks introduced readers to recipes from Spain, Italy, Hungary, and parts of Africa and Australia. Each one – including her most beloved, a two-part set on soups and salads – included tongue-in-cheek and amusing instructions written by Franny.
Mark Levine said his mother was an insatiable cook. Franny’s experimentation in the kitchen often included fresh vegetables from their extensive garden and ingredients from local markets and stores. In Fresno and Brooklyn, she hosted many large gatherings, which often included poets contemporary to Phil and former students.
Franny Levine’s warmth touched everyone she met, according to Fresno State English teacher Steven Church. In an essay published in the anthology “The Kiss: Intimacies of Writers” Church wrote:
“When she greets you, Franny Levine, a petite woman with an incredibly bright smile and soft eyes magnified by her glasses, will approach you and take your face in her hands; she will hold you there, look you in the eye, without ever blinking, and will kiss you squarely on the lips or maybe on the side of your face, keeping you in his embrace for a second or two – and that little gesture, that mark is filled with more kindness and dazzle. love than most people get in a day or a week or a month. It’s not a cold, formal European kiss. It’s something bigger, something deeper, the difference between a fountain and a well. She will reach out, bridge the chasm between two humans, and offer that kiss, that real gift, that brief meeting of spheres, and you will feel like an inflated balloon, and suddenly believe in the possibility of grace.
Franny Levine is survived by her son Mark and stepdaughter Katie Levine; son Teddy and daughter-in-law Jo Levine; son John Levine; five grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
She was predeceased by her parents, her husband and her sister, Margaret Moeller.
A memorial service will be announced in the fall. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial tributes be made to the Fresno State Department of English in honor of Frances Levine. Checks can be made out to the Fresno State Foundation, with “Philip Levine Scholarship” in the memo, and mailed to 5245 N. Backer Ave., PB98, Fresno, CA 93740. For questions about donations, call 559.278.1569.
(Primary photo by Mark Levine; secondary photo courtesy of The Poetry Foundation)