ZETA LEVINE LIVES some 1,500 miles from Waterville, but the city is very much in her heart — and a part of her everyday thoughts.

Levine, 79, of West Palm Beach, Florida, grew up on a farm on Sidney Road, which now is West River Road, with her parents, Louis and Gertrude, and remembers coming into the city to shop with her mother.

They would visit the pharmacy with a soda fountain on Main Street downtown next to Levine’s clothing store, which was owned by her cousins, Pacy and Ludy Levine.

“We’d go to buy our Hallmark cards at the Hallmark store across the street near Butler’s,” she said. “Then, there was J.C. Penney and there was Emery Brown and of course, there was Montgomery Ward and there was Sterns. My mother used to shop at Alvina and Delia. They had a downstairs and my mother loved wearing hats. Jane Muskie worked there and she would wait on my mother. She was a lovely lady.”

Muskie was the former Jane Gray, sister of Howard N. Gray, general manager of the Morning Sentinel. She married Edmund S. Muskie, a Waterville lawyer who later would become Maine’s governor.

Waterville’s downtown was a busy place back then, and there was a lot to do and see, according to Levine.

“There was the Harris Bakery. I remember LaVerdiere’s store which was right on the corner near the Haines movie theater. It was a wonderful Main Street. The Jefferson Hotel on College Avenue used to have a Chinese restaurant owned by the Shiros. Mrs. Shiro had the most wonderful cheesecake. Anyone who is still around will remember that wonderful cheesecake.”

Levine was born at Sister’s Hospital on College Avenue in 1937. Her mother died when Levine was only 14; her father died when she was 19. She attended Boston University and graduated in 1959 from the School of Business, after which she worked for Filene’s and then moved to New York where she was a lingerie buyer for 30 years and lived on Fifth Avenue. She was married very briefly but had no children. At 53, she moved to Florida and worked for Barnett Bank.

Though it has been more than 65 years since she lived in Waterville, the city holds such warm memories for Levine that she keeps abreast of everything happening here and is particularly excited about downtown revitalization efforts launched by the city and Colby College.

“I think the downtown needs to be rebuilt,” she said. “I hope that it doesn’t take too long. Colby College is such a wonderful college. My sister, Pat, met her husband at Colby.”

I’ve been getting to know Levine through phone calls, since the first time she called sometime last year to talk about what is happening in the city. I enjoy talking with her because she has a keen memory and loves to tell stories about Waterville in the 1940s. She is upbeat, likes to laugh and is a champion for Waterville — and Maine in general.

“If I see a car with a Maine license plate, I’ll follow them into a store to say, ‘Hello.’ It’s just such a nice feeling to see somebody from Maine.”

She went to a Boston University reunion several years ago at the Boca Raton Museum of Art,where she noticed a woman who was wearing a tag that said she was from Maine. Levine approached her, told her she grew up in Waterville and discovered — much to her delight — that the woman, Liz Geller, also is from Waterville and lives in Florida part of the year with her husband, Sidney. Levine and Geller have been friends ever since.

“She just loves all things Maine and especially Waterville,” Liz Geller said in a phone interview from Florida. “She’s just a wonderful, sweet, thoughtful person. She’s very friendly. She talks to everybody.”

Levine’s love for Waterville goes back to her family. It started with her mother, a Waterville native who moved to New York City, worked on Wall Street and was very good at the stock market. She later moved back to Waterville and married Louis Levine.

She was a loving, caring mother but was ill with asthma during Zeta’s young life and died at 50. Zeta remembers going into her parents’ bedroom in the morning as a child and seeing her mother sitting next to the window, struggling to get air. Her mother, a Waterville native, had done a lot for the community.

“She helped the Jewish and the Christian people — she was involved in everything,” Levine said. “Waterville was a wonderful, wonderful town, and when my father married my mother, I ended up being related to almost every Jewish person in Waterville between my mother’s side and my father’s side. Everyone went to services. My mother was very involved in life in Maine. She helped set up Camp Lown for Jewish children in the state of Maine.”

Zeta attended that camp in Oakland for about 10 years.

“I loved it and it was the most wonderful place for me. I learned how to read Hebrew and we read all the prayers.”

Several years ago, she went back to the spot where the camp once was and marveled at how small it appeared compared to how large it seemed when she was a child. She also visited downtown Waterville and was stunned at how it had changed so dramatically from her youth.

“There was nothing there. Colby’s helping to build it back up. Yes, it was a wonderful town. There were things to do and places to go.”

As she goes about her daily life in Florida, Waterville is never far from her thoughts.

“I read George Mitchell’s book, ‘The Negotiator,’ which was wonderful,” she said. “Right now, I’m reading ‘Head of Falls,’ by Earl Smith. I’m finding it very interesting, but I just started it. I read another book just recently about Waterville.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 29 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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