Renowned Fresno State professor researched perceptions of time, kindness, around the world

Robert “Bob” Levine
Robert “Bob” Levine

Robert Levine loved exploring the world and its many cultures.

The renowned social psychologist and longtime Fresno State professor’s travels were part of his research, fueled by curiosity and a desire to help others. Much of his work focused on studying perceptions of time and paces of life in numerous countries. He wrote about what he learned in the international best-seller, “A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist.”

“If I have done my job well, this book will set a clearer focus on the pace of our own lives as well as that of others,” Levine wrote in the beginning of his first book. “How do we use our time? What is this use doing to our cities? To our relationships? To our own bodies and psyches? Are there decisions we have made without consciously choosing them? Alternative tempos that we might prefer?”

Levine died Saturday of heart failure due to a viral infection. He was 73.

His illness was sudden and unexpected. He had just returned earlier this month from a two-week trip to Nepal. Family and friends described him as healthy.

Levine is remembered as one of the most famous social psychologists and Fresno State faculty members, said Lynnette Zelezny, president of California State University, Bakersfield, and a former colleague in Fresno State’s Department of Psychology.

California Sen. Melissa Hurtado will adjourn Monday’s state legislative session with words of remembrance honoring Levine, and Fresno State will lower its flag in his memory Tuesday.

“Through Dr. Levine’s bold work, he strived to make the world a better place – challenging all of us to reflect on how we can break down our own internal barriers,” Hurtado said. “In a sense, he was a trailblazer for cultivating a community that continues to celebrate diversity.”

Robert Levine pictured in 2003 after authoring his second book, “The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold.” Scott Adams Neighbors Staff Photo

The Brooklyn native called Fresno home for nearly half a century. He moved to the central San Joaquin Valley city to start working at Fresno State in 1974 as a psychology professor. He became a Fresno State professor emeritus in 2008 but continued to teach part-time in his retirement, including this spring semester.

“He was a down-to-earth man that loved salt-of-the-earth people,” Zelezny said. “I am sure that as famous as he was, that he had many opportunities to go anywhere he wanted to go. But in my mind he was always so grounded in Fresno and he lived a very full life there. I think it was really a big part of his heart, where he served.”

Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, who led the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, described Levine as “probably the most gentle and kind person I know in my entire life and also a great teacher.”

“He was really more like a psychological anthropologist, studying cultures where most psychologists study individuals,” Zimbardo said. “His research was incredibly creative.”

Robert Levine pictured for a Fresno Bee story about his international best-selling book, “A Geography of Time.” MARK CROSSE Fresno Bee archive photo

Some of his research focused on helping and kindness toward strangers.

A joint effort by the United Nations and country of Bhutan took him to the South Asian nation to advise on their Gross National Happiness Index and help develop policies to raise world happiness.

Levine won numerous awards for his research, teaching and writing. At Fresno State, that included the university’s top teaching honor, the Provost’s Excellence in Teaching Award, and Outstanding Professor of the Year.

Constance Jones, chairperson of Fresno State’s Department of Psychology, affectionately recalled watching him teach.

“He loved to tell stories,” Jones said, “and funny stories, interesting stories, that illustrated the points and really connected with the students in a sweet, personal way.”

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A newspaper clipping showing a photo of Robert Levine by The Collegian, Fresno State’s student-run newspaper, announcing his Professor of the Year award. The Collegian Special to The Bee

Zelezny, who also served as chair of the university’s psychology department, as did Levine, said he “truly embodied a person that cared about healing the world, and he brought such joy because he was really funny and could always make you laugh at yourself, and he was always laughing at himself.”

For his second book, “The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold,” he drew from some experiences working undercover as a car salesman in Fresno while still teaching to learn the “tricks of the trade” about persuasion firsthand versus solely researching in a library, Jones said.

His latest book is “Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self.”

The numerous courses he taught included persuasion and mind control, which studied cults among other things.

In Fresno, he was also on the board of the Poverello House homeless shelter, headed the Social Action Award committee at Temple Beth Israel for several years, and enjoyed making art at Chris Sorensen’s studio.

Robert Levine, center, then-board president of the Poverello House, at a 30th anniversary celebration for the Fresno homeless shelter in 2003. Richard Darby Fresno Bee archive photo

Levine additionally served as associate dean of Fresno State’s College of Science and Mathematics and was a visiting professor at universities in Brazil, Japan and Sweden, along with being a fellow in the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University in the U.K.

He was a past president of the Western Psychological Association, an American Psychological Association fellow, and was awarded Outstanding Psychologist by the San Joaquin Valley Psychological Association.

Levine leaves behind his wife, Trudi Thom, a retired school psychologist with Fresno County schools; and two sons, Andy Levine, a regional director with Faith in the Valley, which includes Faith in Fresno; and Zach Levine, a doctorate student in anthropology at Duke University.

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Robert Levine and his wife Trudi Thom with their sons Andy Levine, left, and Zach Levine, center. Special to The Bee

Levine died surrounded by family and friends in a Santa Rosa hospital. He was taken there because he fell ill while visiting the nearby North Coast.

Andy said he is “forever grateful” that one of the last moments he shared with his dad last Wednesday, before his health more steeply declined, was about the Fresno City Council planning to vote on an Advance Peace program geared toward reducing gun violence.

“I said, ‘Dad, the vote’s tomorrow for Advance Peace, hopefully this will move forward,’ ” Andy recalled. “His eyes got big and he leaned forward and smiled and said, ‘Really.’ ”

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Robert Levine, left, son Andy Levine, center, and Gyanesh Lama hold a Fresno State shirt atop Poon Hill during their recent trip to Nepal. Special to The Bee

Levine continued to be socially active into his final days. Earlier this month, he was visiting an impoverished village in Nepal with Andy and Fresno State professor Gyanesh Lama. The trio brainstormed ways to help Lama’s native village that was devastated by earthquakes a few years ago.

The Robert Victor Levine Memorial Fund was created this week through the Central Valley Community Foundation to help rebuild Lama’s village and provide the community with clean drinking water, among other projects to help.

Andy said his dad was the “most genuine and consistent person I think I’ve ever met” – listening to everyone and treating everyone with “respect and worth.”

“He was curious about everything,” Andy said, “and about the world and every person, and wanting to learn people’s stories … He showed me there is beauty in the world even though there is certainly a lot of brokenness.”

Zach said his father worked to “cut down the ego and nourish connection.”

“His life was so much about interconnectedness and the unity that connects all of us,” Zach said, “and the event of his passing was so tremendously vibrant and pulsing with that web of connection.”

Robert “Bob” Victor Levine

Born: Aug. 25, 1945

Died: June 22, 2019

Residence: Fresno

Occupation: Fresno State psychology professor

Survivors: Wife Trudi Thom, sons Andy and Zach Levine, brother Dan Levine, sister Alice Levine, and several nieces and nephews.

Services: 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 10 at Fresno State’s Peace Garden, followed by an informal reception in the university’s library.

Remembrances: Central Valley Community Foundation’s Robert Victor Levine Memorial Fund, 5260 N. Palm Ave., Suite 122, Fresno, or at centralvalleycf.org/donate/ by adding the name of the fund in “add special instructions to the seller.” Donations can also be made in Levine’s memory to the Poverello House or Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.