Norman Lezin

Obituary of Norman Lezin

Norman Sigmund Lezin passed away peacefully in the comfort of his home, surrounded by family and trusted caregivers. He was born to Ben and Estell Lezin in Cleveland, Ohio, September 14, 1924. The family moved often, relocating to new postings for his father's work as an electrical engineer in the U.S. Navy. By the time he entered high school, Norman had already lived in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Seattle. After graduating from Queen Anne High in Seattle, he previewed his lifelong interests in adventure and cycling by bicycling across Canada alone. Norman attended Reed College in Portland, but his studies were interrupted in 1943 when he enlisted in the Army. He served in the Pacific Theatre in military intelligence under the command of Douglas MacArthur until the end of the war. Norman returned to Reed, where he graduated with a degree in political science and married his college sweetheart, Margaret Salz.

In 1948 Norman and Margie moved to Santa Cruz, so that he could spend the summer working at his father-in-law's tannery. Norman recalled, "When I arrived in Santa Cruz, I didn't know if I was going to work at a tannery or a cannery and it didn't matter. It was a job." He had contemplated a career in academia or public service but the craft of making fine leather grew on Norman and within a couple of years he was named president of A.K. Salz Company, the youngest U.S. tannery president at that time. By 1961, he had expanded the small artisanal operation into an international business.

Norman was a practical environmentalist long before it was a popular stance. In 1971, he offered to finance bicycles for his employees with company-subsidized loans. The goal was to get employees out of their cars. After the story ran in the Sentinel, the Associated Press picked it up and by late summer, Life magazine camera crews had descended on tannery. There was such a rush of news and film coverage of the bicycle project that cameramen were taking photos of other cameramen taking movies of Norman.

Norman's relentless energy, optimism, and imagination drove the launch of many internationally acclaimed leathers. Each featured the natural beauty and feel that were the trademark of Salz. Brands like Coach, Red Wing, Dr. Martens and Birkenstock achieved huge success based on leathers from Santa Cruz. Salz's production peaked after the movie "Midnight Cowboy" was released in 1969, creating an insatiable demand for cowboy boots. The tannery expanded to 400 employees and ran around the clock.

Norman was loved and revered by his employees. To this day, former Salz employees often say that it was the best job they ever had. Over time, factories and then tanneries migrated to Asia in search of cheaper labor. When Salz closed its doors in 2001, it was the last remaining tannery west of the Mississippi River.

Norman entered the political scene unintentionally while petitioning the planning department to correct the misspelling of his street name. He couldn't convince them to make the change, but his compelling arguments were so well received that the city employees suggested he run for City Council. In 1962 he won a seat on the council and was elected mayor two years later.

His political appointments were extensive and enduring. Norman served as President of the Santa Cruz Citizen's Health council, was appointed to the California Industrial Welfare Commission by Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr., served as a democratic superdelegate in the 1956 National Convention, chairman of the Santa Cruz Planning Advisory Committee, Chairman of Pierre Salinger's Santa Cruz campaign for U.S. senator, and Chairman of Muskie for President. In 1998, he co-chaired with Dan Haifley a committee to pass an $86 million school bond used to repair neglected grade schools. In 1989, Norman and his wife were named Man and Woman of the year by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce. Twelve years later Norman received the award again.

Norman was wonderfully irreverent and quick witted. While serving as the mayor a heckler shouted, "Lezin, you're a Jewish Communist!" Without hesitation Norman quipped, "You're half right, but I won't tell you which half." Norman drew criticism for hiring African Americans at the tannery and leading civil rights sympathy rallies during the McCarthy era.

He was an avid sailor, passionate but impatient fisherman, lifelong member of the Santa Cruz Yacht Club, and started the Wednesday night sailboat races-- a tradition that the Lezin family carries on to this day. He was a strong advocate for the construction of a harbor at Twin Lakes and later served as port commissioner for 17 years.

Norman embraced the future and sprinted headlong towards it. A desire to stop the branding of cattle inspired Norman to develop subdermal tags, which led to the formation of Identronics, Inc., a cutting-edge local electronics firm. When the University of California launched a search for a new campus, Norman promoted the Cowell property. He was given an honorary fellowship in Stevenson College for his fundraising efforts. Norman and Margie were ardent and faithful UCSC supporters all their lives.

Concerned about California's rising high school dropout rate, Norman established one of the county's first charter schools in partnership with businessman Jim Watson. Delta High School was founded on the proposition that giving students more freedom and personal accountability makes education relevant to those who have not found success in traditional high schools.

"Norm," as he preferred to be called, was predeceased by his wife of 54 years, Margaret Salz Lezin (2002) and his second wife of 10 years, Mary Kate Lezin (2013). He leaves behind three children: Jennifer Lezin (Palo Alto), Jeremy Lezin (Santa Cruz) and Matthew (Carol) Lezin (Santa Cruz), as well as eight grandchildren: Joshua, Joseph and Rachel (Lockett) Niederman, Nicholas, Amy, Andrew, Ben and Sara Lezin. He is also survived by his former daughter-in-law, Patricia Kubo Lezin.

The family wishes to thank Ebony Jorgensen (Safe At Home) and Jose Juaregui, as well as Hospice of Santa Cruz County and Norm's team of caregivers for their steadfast support and love.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Hospice of Santa Cruz County (940 Disc Dr, Scotts Valley, CA 95066) and Delta School (2702, 2730 Cabrillo College Dr, Aptos, CA 95003)

A celebration of Norm's life will be held at Holy Cross Church Parish Hall, 3-6 pm, March 3rd, 2018.