Gilbert Levine has tried to retire three times, but this time he says it’s for real.
“I decided when I turned 90, that was a good time to make the transition,” he said in his office at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, which he still visits twice a week.
Levine, an emeritus professor of biological and environmental engineering, first retired in 1983 after more than 30 years on the Cornell faculty. He returned to serve as the Einaudi Center’s interim director in 1988, keeping a steady hand on the wheel while a new director was chosen. He was called back three more times between then and 2009, for a total of nearly eight years in the position.
For the last 20 years he also worked part-time as the center’s Fulbright adviser, guiding hundreds of students through the planning and application process for what many find to be a transformative experience.
“The Einaudi Center is extremely fortunate to have had Gil Levine,” said director Hirokazu Miyazaki. “He has played a vital role in the life of our center over the last 30 years, and in the lives of so many students.”
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State, supports recent graduates, graduate students and young professionals engaged in research, study or teaching English in more than 150 countries.
The Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, supports overseas research in modern languages and area studies by doctoral students. The Einaudi Center administers both programs at Cornell. Emeritus professor of anthropology David Holmberg has taken over the adviser position from Levine.
In recent years the university has been cited as a top producer of U.S. Fulbright students, said Elizabeth Edmondson, the center’s Fulbright administrator. Edmondson said applicants have benefited from Levine’s years of work outside the United States.
“Gil embodies all that is best in an international citizen,” she said. “His extensive global knowledge, experience and sensitivity made him the ideal Fulbright adviser.”
Stefan Senders, the Einaudi Center’s Fulbright undergraduate adviser, agrees. “I have seen Gil work with all manner of students and colleagues – the undergraduate with grand plans, the established scholar seeking advice, the dean just learning how Fulbright scholarships are awarded – and I have been struck by his extraordinary tact and grace,” he said. “Gil listens carefully, almost serenely, and responds with measure, humor and respect. No one walks away wounded or discouraged; instead, they are dignified. It is a beautiful thing to see and experience.”
A native of New York City, Levine studied agriculture in high school (“it was a way to be different”), then enrolled at Cornell. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the occupation forces in Germany in the aftermath of World War II. After completing his service, he returned to Cornell, where he received his bachelor’s (1948) and doctoral (1952) degrees and was offered a job on the faculty.
He worked as a professor of agricultural engineering until 1983, serving as director of Cornell’s Center for Environmental Research and Water Resources and Marine Sciences Center.
Levine’s association with Cornell has lasted more than 70 years. Yet it was outside the university that he found his calling.
“I was always involved with agricultural resources at Cornell, but my first sabbatical was to UC Davis, where I got involved with water issues in California,” he said. “That’s what really started it. There was a lot of attention to increasing agricultural production worldwide, and a major component of that was irrigation.”
His water management work took him all over the world. He collaborated with the ministries of the environment and public works in Venezuela. He worked on irrigation in Taiwan. He lived and taught in the Philippines during two stints in the 1960s. Then, after his first retirement from Cornell, he worked in an agriculture and irrigation program with the Ford Foundation in India.
Retirement, for Levine, is not a black-and-white matter. He continues to write personal essays and is collaborating on a book chapter on water resource management. “I put less emphasis on technical aspects in my writing these days,” he said. “It’s somewhat more holistic in viewing the issues, looking at the factors that influence the way water is used.”
Not everyone’s idea of retirement, perhaps, but one that keeps him coming back to an institution he helped shape, and which is grateful for his service.
Hassan Saleem ’20 is a student communications assistant at the Einaudi Center.
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