In an all too often sharp-elbowed world, Leo Liebowitz stood out, forging a real estate empire while treating everyone equally well, no matter their station in life, said his son Robert of Roslyn.
"He had tremendous respect for people — and he always put family first," his son said.
"I would just say everyone seemed to love him and he touched so many people in his life, you know, beyond the business world and what’s seen in the newspaper — people really seemed to gravitate to him."
Liebowitz, 94, who got his start repairing New York City buses, was the subject of more than a few newspaper cover stories as the firm he cofounded vastly expanded after an initial purchase of just one struggling gas station in 1955.
Many more such acquisitions followed, creating the Power Test Corp., which went public in 1971 and grew into the East Coast’s largest independent gasoline distributor.
Born on Sept. 28, 1927, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Liebowitz died of COVID-19 on Dec. 12 at a hospital.
In 1985, Liebowitz scooped up all of the Getty Oil Co.’s northeast gasoline stations, terminals and retail supply contracts, which antitrust concerns were forcing Texaco Inc. to shed as part of its own purchase of the Getty Oil Co.
Liebowitz also bought the name of the Getty Oil Co. — and about a dozen years later, he led the spinoff of all its petroleum marketing and distribution assets into a new public company that made history when it was sold to Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil company, in 2000 for $71 million.
Lukoil, the first Russian corporation to acquire a U.S. publicly traded company, gained the rights to 1,300 Getty Petroleum stations in 13 Northeast and mid-Atlantic states.
Liebowitz, with 17% of the Getty Petroleum stock, would have received a sizable payday, Newsday reported. Asked what he was going to do with the money, Liebowitz said: "I'm going to go and build a boat."
"He loved speed, he loved fast boats, any boat that he bought or built — it always had a 25-knot minimum speed requirement," his son said. Eventually graduating to a 156-foot superyacht named MIT sea AH, a bit of a sarcastic nod to a Yiddish expression, mitzeah, for "big deal," or "bargain," he vacationed with his family from Maine to the Caribbean.
A mechanic’s mechanic, Liebowitz didn’t need instruction manuals to rebuild car and boat engines, and even undertook repairs in tough conditions, including the bilge.
Getty Realty Corp., the New York Stock Exchange-listed company Liebowitz led, in February announced his retirement, saying: "The real estate portfolio retained after the spinoff became the core property leasing business which anchors the company’s holdings to this day."
Liebowitz, who remained one of the company’s largest shareholders, retired after five decades as chairman of the board; he also served as chief executive from 1985 until 2010 and as president from 1971 until 2004.
A real estate investment trust, Getty Realty Corp. "owns and leases a quality portfolio of more than 950 convenience stores, gas stations, and other automotive properties," the announcement said.
Christopher Constant, Getty’s current chief executive, saluted Liebowitz’s "enormous passion, commitment and immeasurable contributions to Getty over the years."
Like Liebowitz’s son, the CEO also singled out the chairman for his uncommonly egalitarian leadership.
"It is well-known that when Leo was our CEO, he had the front door to his personal office removed as a testament and invitation to his open-door policy, and no matter how busy he was, he always made time for the company’s employees. He has created a culture of honesty, integrity and caring, along with an unparalleled desire to succeed and grow."
After graduating from Brooklyn's New Utrecht High School during World War II — he later attended automotive school — Liebowitz enlisted in the military, serving as a private first class at Eglin Field in Florida, and until 1946 as a weatherman, the family said.
His marriage to Rose, another Brooklynite whom he met at a dance, was a happy one that would endure more than seven decades, his son said. The couple settled in Nassau’s Sands Point after first living in Elmont and then Williston Park.
A powerfully positive outlook was one of the many factors driving Liebowitz’s rise.
"He was an eternal optimist with everything, he never had regrets, he never looked back, he was always looking forward," his son said. "If there was some kind of setback, he would never get down about it; he would immediately be moving on to the next thing; he didn’t dwell on anything."
Sept. 22, 1994, was proclaimed Leo Liebowitz Day, by the Queens borough president, "for his outstanding leadership, integrity, commitment to family, education, and the spirit of taking advantage of the opportunity," the family said in a statement.
A founding member of Roslyn's Shelter Rock Jewish Center, Liebowitz in 2001 was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, according to the Congressional Record, which celebrates "significant contributions to the life of this nation."
In addition to his wife and son, survivors include his children Eileen, Karen, Linda, Pamela and Richard; his brother Irv of Merrick; 18 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.