ESSAYS

Thank Goodness for Jack

A memorial at Stanford Sierra Camp caught me by surprise.

July 9, 2024

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Illustration of a man kneeling by a memorial next to a lake

Illustration: Eva Vazquez

As I’m writing this, my wife, son, and I are at Stanford Sierra Camp. It’s Week 11, 2023. It’s only our second year. Some families return year after year, for their same assigned week, for a decade or more. 

Earlier today, on a walk, I spotted a weathered bronze plaque on a stone next to the flagpole, and it took me back to 1974 and the first time I’d ever met a lawyer. His name was Jack Levitan. We were both taking a karate class at a Buddhist temple in Oakland. I was a small, shy 14-year-old, one of the few Asian kids at my high school. My father, who’d been bullied as a child, wanted me to learn a martial art so I could defend myself. 

Jack, his wife, Maureen (O’Brien, later Sullivan), ’59, and their two daughters were taking the class together. In the dressing room, Jack talked about his Jewish heritage and, in particular, his father, a wrestler who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. He had taught Jack to stand up to bullies.

I continued karate training through high school and college. By my senior year at Stanford, I was captain of the university’s JKA Shotokan Karate Club, and I graduated with a first-degree black belt. After that, I had had enough. Karate was something my father had made me do, and I was eager to start a new chapter of my life, at law school and in New York. 

Three years later, I moved back to California. I passed the bar exam, but to be admitted as a licensed attorney, I needed a character reference from a California attorney. The only lawyers I knew, I thought, were in New York. And the only professionals I knew in California were my parents’ friends—their fellow gardeners and landscape contractors. We didn’t know anyone who had gone to law school. Then I thought of Jack.

My father, who’d been bullied as a child, wanted me to learn a martial art so I could defend myself.

Thank goodness for Jack. When I cold-called him, he remembered me and agreed to sign the reference form. 

That was nearly 40 years ago. Today, I have a great job in the general counsel’s office of the best public university system in the world. I returned to karate training years ago and am now an internationally recognized fifth-degree black belt. I coach at the University of San Francisco and occasionally teach students at the Stanford club.

And what happened to Jack? In January 1988, he and a few friends, including clinical radiology professor Vince Oronzi, were vacationing off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, aboard the Anticipation, a 67-foot pleasure boat. At about 1:30 a.m., a large fire broke out. The crew broadcast an alert, then jumped into the water and banged on the hull to warn passengers. Many of them escaped by scrambling through the portholes, but Jack and Vince did not. They were still onboard when the boat sank.

The plaque at the flagpole is about them. It reads: Jack Levitan—Vince Oronzi. Let us remember what these men, who shared with us their love and zest for life, treasured at Stanford Sierra Camp. A time to relax, a time to renew, and a time to laugh with family and friends, in the beauty of this place. 

It’s signed: Week Six of 1988.


Mark Morodomi, ’82, practices law in Oakland and welcomes connecting with other martial arts club alumni. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu

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