Kenneth Leventhal, USC life trustee, dies at 90

Kenneth Leventhal, a USC trustee and real estate accountant known for his leadership, energy and philanthropy, died May 8. He was 90.

Leventhal had prostate cancer, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As a USC life trustee, the leader of two fundraising campaigns and the namesake of the School of Accounting, Leventhal was heavily involved in university affairs.

In memoriam · Kenneth Leventhal served as a USC life trustee and was chairman emeritus of Ernst & Young. - Photo Courtesy of the Leventhal School of Accounting

Stan Ross, a business partner who had known Leventhal for 50 years, said Leventhal’s attachment to the university only increased with time.

“He had such strong feelings about the university throughout the years and they just grew stronger,” said Ross, who also chairs the board of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. “He felt strongly that USC had a wonderful curriculum and academic program and that the faculty were really excellent.”

In 1995, Leventhal and his wife, Elaine Otter Leventhal, bequeathed $15 million to USC’s accounting school, which was named in their honor the following year. The Leventhals pledged an additional $10 million during a 10-year fundraising drive, which Kenneth Leventhal led.

When completed in 2002, the campaign had raised more than $2.85 billion for USC.

A graduate of UCLA, Leventhal became an active USC supporter after his alma mater ended its accounting program, said Ken Merchant, a former dean of the Elaine and Kenneth Leventhal School of Accounting.

“UCLA, some years ago, decided to do away with their accounting majors, and he thought that was a colossal mistake,” Merchant said. “He sort of gravitated toward USC and became one of their best friends over the years.”

His firm, Kenneth Leventhal & Co., which was involved in some of the nation’s largest real estate transactions, gained a reputation for its partners’ expertise and knowledge of real estate, said William W. Holder, dean of the Leventhal School of Accounting. Holder said, as a result, the firm was able to attract high-profile clients, such as Ray Watt and William Lyon.

“He attracted, very early on, some of the giants in California real estate,” Holder said. “As they prospered, his firm prospered.”

Holder described Kenneth Leventhal’s business manner as incisive.

“He was purposeful, he was very intelligent [and] he was direct,” said Holder, who occasionally worked on retainer with Leventhal’s firm. “He didn’t waste a lot of time.”

Kenneth Leventhal believed the accountant’s role should extend beyond audits or preparing financial statements, Holder said.

“I think he had an abiding belief that an accountant’s perspective and knowledge could be a very valuable source for good in the management and operation of a company,” Holder said.

When Kenneth Leventhal was 10, his paper route manager at the Herald-Express was taking a course in accounting and told him he needed only a pencil to become an accountant, according to a statement from President C. L. Max Nikias. Leventhal felt that a nickel for a pencil was a small price to pay to be his own boss and began working toward becoming an accountant.

“I figured I could always raise a nickel for a pencil,” Leventhal said to the Los Angeles Times in 1985.

Leventhal attended UCLA on the G.I. Bill, having served in the army during World War II. While at UCLA, he met and married his wife, Elaine.

“He was kind of a rags to riches story,” Merchant said. “He didn’t have a lot of money.”

In 1995, Kenneth Leventhal & Co., the firm that he and his wife had built, merged with Ernst & Young.

At the time of the merger, the firm ran 13 offices nationwide and ranked as the ninth-largest certified public accounting firm in the country.

Leventhal is survived by his wife, Elaine; his brother, Henley; his son Robert; his son Ross and daughter-in-law Mary Jo; and his granddaughter Emma.

The university plans to host a celebration of Leventhal’s life in the fall, Nikias said.

“Ken was truly an extraordinary individual and the conscience of the university,”  Nikias said.