ISLAMORADA -- Ron Levy, whose dogged and successful push for incorporation in the mid-1990s transformed Islamorada, and Monroe County at large, died Monday morning in his Upper Matecumbe Key home after a seven-year battle against brain cancer. He was 66.
Born in Brooklyn in 1947, Levy spent most of his life in New York. He moved to Islamorada with his longtime partner and eventual wife Beth Kaminstein after the couple purchased a home here in 1989, Kaminstein said Monday.
An artist by trade, Levy ran a company that made clay Indian cooking ovens, called tandoors. But the biggest mark he would leave on the Florida Keys was in politics.
Beginning in 1996, Levy spearheaded Islamorada's incorporation movement. Preserving the small-town feel of Plantation Key, Windley Key, Upper Matecumbe and Lower Matecumbe was his goal, Kaminstein said.
"He was often misunderstood in that quest," she said.
Indeed, although incorporation would eventually become a reality, and Levy would be elected to Islamorada's first Village Council in March 1998, the movement met with fierce opposition from parties both within and outside Islamorada. For some locals, the concern was that incorporation would lead to higher taxes. Monroe County officials, meanwhile, pushed hard against Levy's vision, concerned about the impact of siphoning one of the Keys' wealthier areas out of the tax base.
Through the fight, Levy was a lightning rod -- a role that would he would continue to play in the years ahead as a councilman, the first village mayor and as an activist. But friends and foes had little reason to question his determination.
"Ron was a pioneer, he was a visionary," said Jim Hendrick, a former county attorney who battled Levy during the Islamorada incorporation drive. "Unlike Moses, he actually got to occupy his promised land. ... He had a great sense of humor, even though he could be zealous at times."
Hendrick said Islamorada's incorporation was transformative for the Keys, spawning Marathon's successful incorporation drive a year later, as well as failed incorporation efforts in Key Largo and the Lower Keys.
But Levy's work was far from done. As a member of the first Village Council, he successfully pushed for the controversial acquisition of the Plantation Yacht Harbor, which the village turned into Founders Park. He supported a much disputed ordinance, later struck down by the courts, that prevented chain stores from opening within village boundaries. And he supported other land use rules and restrictions that engendered heavy opposition from local businesses.
Levy would pay for those efforts. Concerned about his prospects of victory, he chose not to run for re-election in 2002. And he garnered just 35 percent of the vote in his one other election, a 2008 run against incumbent and Robbie's Marina owner Michael Reckwerdt, who had long been one of Levy's most vocal critics.
But even stripped of his official position, Levy continued to influence village affairs. He backed political candidates. He successfully worked with then-mayor Chris Sante to get the county to turn over a portion of gas tax revenues to the village. In 2004, when cost overruns caused the village to scrap construction of a Founders Park amphitheater that Levy had championed, he joined forces with musician Dave Feder to form Islamorada Community Entertainment, which took over and completed the job. ICE has gone on to bring an annual roster of concerts and theater to Islamorada.
On Monday, Feder remembered Levy as a brilliant man who loved matching wits with people. He noted that Levy's community service extended beyond his dual passions of civic affairs and the arts. In 1997, for example, he and Kaminstein founded Montessori Island School in Tavernier.
"The most significant thing about Ron is that he had the best interests of the community in mind in a global sense," Feder said.
In late 2006, Levy was diagnosed with brain cancer and was told he had six months to a year to live. He underwent brain surgery in January 2007. Though he never returned to full health, he remained active in public and community affairs for another 6 ¬½ years, appearing before the Village Council as recently as this summer, a personal assistant by his side, to make a detailed case for a toll on the Overseas Highway.
Levy never quite stopped being a divisive figure in the village. As recently as the fall of 2012, opponents of Village Council candidate Travis Yednak invoked Levy's support of Yednak as a campaign strategy.
But many of Levy's opponents gradually came to respect his efforts on behalf of Islamorada. In June 2011, then-Mayor Reckwerdt led the charge to honor Levy with the title of mayor emeritus in Islamorada.
Levy is survived by Kaminstein; daughters Brieze, 23, and Stellar, 21; his mother Shirley, 90; and a younger sister, Barbara Levy. The family will commemorate his life with a showing of Levy's pottery at noon Sunday, Oct. 13, at Morada Clay, in Upper Matecumbe's Morada Way Art District.
The family plans to set up a scholarship fund at Coral Shores High School in Levy's name. They also ask that donations be given to ICE, the Keys Jewish Community Center and the Cleveland Clinic's Rose Ella Burkhardt Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center.