When did Dr. Paul Levine get the idea he could catch butterflies as well as the next guy?
Maybe it was the time his older cousin Joel wouldn't let him go along on a collecting expedition because "I'd only scare the butterflies," Levine said.
The older boys had failed to catch one butterfly prize, the monarch.
"Not knowing how hard it was to catch a monarch butterfly, I saw one on a zinnia in the front yard of a neighbor. I naively picked it up by its wings and went to Joel to ask him if he wanted this monarch for his collection," he said, grinning.
Cousin Joel took the monarch, not at all grateful to his little cousin.
"That was the start of it," Levine said, "and it grew from there."
Today Levine's digital photo collection numbers in the thousands of images, and he no longer collects dead butterflies.
He belongs to several naturalist organizations and lectures about butterflies throughout the Santa Clarita Valley, including the Placerita Canyon Nature Center where his is a docent-naturalist.
Levine belongs to the North American Butterfly Association, the Lorquin Entomologic Society and the Xerces Society, all groups that deal with insects (the butterfly is an insect) and other invertebrates.
A high point in his youthful butterfly career was the New York State Science Fair. It started when Levine's biology teacher asked him to bring in his butterfly collection.
"I ended up teaching all the biology class sections on insects," he said.
With the extensive collection, Levine won the local and district science fairs. But he got a left-handed compliment from the state judges when they refused to place his collection.
The state science fair judges "said the butterfly collection was impressive, but there is absolutely no way a tenth grader could put together that extensive a collection," Levine remembers. "But I had been collecting for years. I actually did collect, mount and identify every butterfly. But since there was no way a tenth grader could do that in their minds, I did not even place."
Nevertheless, he kept up his passion for butterflies until three things got in the way: medical school, post-graduate training and Vietnam.
In Vietnam he ran into a collecting problem.
"I brought a small portable net. Once I knew where it was safe, I did go out collecting. One day I even collected on the base. My (commanding officer) spotted me and called me to one side and told me it didn't really look good," Levine said.
That stopped his Vietnam collection, "at least on the base," he said.
Butterflies and war zones didn't seem to go together, especially when you are a lieutenant and a general medical officer.
"I had the feeling that he would have liked to medevac me for psych reasons, but as senior medical officer on the base, I had to sign off on all medevacs," Levine said, with a twinkle in his eye.
Medical school also conspired to slow down Levine's collecting.
"Medical school and post-graduate education occupied me 24/7," he said. "My call schedule was every other night-every other weekend. I was on Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, Tuesday, then Thursday and Friday. If I wasn't on duty, I was either back at the books or journals looking up something with respect to one of my patients or sleeping."
Even more intense was his life as a cardiologist. That was when his physician wife, Lucille, "suggested that I really needed to do something more than just cardiology (and) that one year, I might want to retire — unless I died first with my proverbial boots on."
His wife suggested he resume his butterfly hobby.
"She was right — and I did — and I am grateful to her for that," he said.
His wife, Dr. Lucille Levine, died in January 2011.
With his wife's suggestion in mind, Levine continues to collect and educate the public on butterflies while still clinically active at Olive View UCLA Medical Center and St. Jude Medical Center, from which he retired in 2010.
In recent years, Levine, a resident of Newhall, has given lectures on butterflies of the Santa Clarita Valley for the L.A. Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority, Towsley Canyon Nature Center and Placerita Canyon Nature Center docents and summer camp participants.
"I am willing to talk to any group that invites me regarding butterflies, but few know about me. I don't advertise, and I don't charge," he said. "It gives me pleasure to get others excited about the natural beauty right here in our back yard."
Update:: Dr. Paul A. Levine died Dec. 27, 2015. He was 71.