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A Citizen of Wallace and Wabash

 Steve Charles—Earlier this year, I wrote the following short piece about Gary Livengood, an electrician with the College’s Campus Services, the guy who handles the sound system and taping for Commencement and Big Bash, and a lifelong resident of nearby Wallace, Indiana. I was hoping it would be the first of several phone conversations I had with one of the College’s true gentlemen, but Gary died of cancer last Thursday.
 
I don’t want to remain silent about the loss of such a good man, so here’s the piece from our first phone conversation. We were just getting started with the recollections, but I hope there’s at least a glimpse here of the friend we’ve lost. It seems we’ve lost some of the kindest, friendliest folks these past few years—Mike Bachner, Rod Helderman, Paul Mielke, Susan Cantrell, and Bill Placher among them. The place just isn’t the same without them, and Commencement and Big Bash sure won’t be the same without Gary.
 
Here’s the story. I had sent it to Gary for fact-checking a few weeks ago, but he wasn’t able to get back to me, so I welcome any corrections—or additions.
 
A Citizen of Wallace, Wabash, and the World
 
Sometimes the people with the most interesting stories are the most reluctant to tell them.
 
Take my colleague Gary Livengood. I had worked with Gary—an electrician with Campus Services and the guy who, among other duties, makes sure the sound is good for our on campus events—for almost 13 years before he ever told me he’d been born in Wales, the country my family came from three generations back. That his mother was a British war bride, born in Maidenhead, England and grew up in London. That people in the town of Wallace where Gary grew up used to knock on his door just to hear his mother speak in her beautiful London accent.
 
That his father, who grew up in Wallace, had hit the beaches in Normandy from a landing craft on the third day of the D-Day invasion and fought in the decisive Battle of the Bulge. His photo is on the cover of a Time-Life book about the war.

And that Gary hit the beaches of Vietnam a generation later in a very similar type of LST, though hardly with the same intensity.

“When we landed there were people on the beach in bikinis and bathing suits putting on suntan oil,” he told me through a laugh. “Not exactly the combat situation my father was in on D-Day plus three. It was the only way they had for us to get off the ship.”

Like most WW II vets, Gary’s dad didn’t talk about or want to relive the moments he’d experienced in combat, including those in one of the most famous and brutal battles of the war. He’d met Gary’s mom in London while on leave. She was a secretary at a factory there making ball bearings for Lancaster bombers, an area subject to regular bombings by the Nazis. Gary’s mom used to come home from work with her face blackened with soot from the fires and bombings. But she refused to live underground or in the tunnels.
“She says that whenever an air raid siren went off, you just kept on going, like hearing a siren in the street,” Gary told me. “There’s a lot to be said for the British and their stiff upper lip. I’ve sure seen it in Mom.”

Having survived his stints on the front lines, Gary’s dad married his British girlfriend and came home to Wallace with hopes of living out his life in peace. Like most war brides, Gary’s mom wasn’t allowed to return with her new husband—there were all sorts of paperwork, and approval to enter the U.S. for the approximately 70,000 English women who married American GIs took months. More than a year, in the case of Gary’s mom—long enough for Gary to be born in the little Welsh town of Dowlais, where his mother’s aunt and uncle lived and where the new Mrs. Livengood had gone to stay until her passage to the U.S. was approved. 

Gary said his grandmother used to tell him that “you were the last thing your father did before he left for the States.”

Gary and his mom arrived in the U.S. aboard the Queen Mary, which is not as luxurious as it sounds, as the ship had been re-fitted as a troop ship for the war.

So Gary grew up the child of two different cultures. And Gary’s mom, who had grown up in and loved the city of London, came to live in Wallace, IN, current population 100, where she still lives today. There are all sorts of stories about her settling in to the Hoosier state—that one about people knocking on her door just to hear her talk was the first one that came to Gary’s mind when I asked him about it. But what was it like to grow up the son of this Indiana farm boy and the English lady?

I’m hoping Gary will tell me more the next time we talk. I do know his English relatives have visited him and his mother many times, and they’ve gone back to her homeland to visit, as well. Rich connections, wonderful stories.

None of which I had any idea about until last year, when we ran an article about Wallace in Wabash Magazine and Gary mentioned, after the fact, that Wallace was his hometown. I’d photographed Phanuel Lutheran church there and had noticed a lot of Livengood headstones in the churchyard. I’d meant to ask him about it.

Actually, the way Gary came to tell me about all this says a bit about him. He’d been cleaning out the Little Giant Room next to the Wabash Bookstore and had found a photograph of bookstore manager the late Mike Bachner ’70, a friend to so many of us here. He thought I might like to keep the photo, so he stopped by to give it to me.

But when I saw Gary next to thank him for his thoughtfulness, we got into this conversation about his being born in Wales, about his traveling to the U.S. as a baby on the Queen Mary, how he’d traveled back to the place of his birth on the Queen Elizabeth, then returned again on the QE 2. After about a half hour of me peppering him with questions, he had to get back to work.

I asked him if he would write some of this down, and he said that he might, but I knew that was as unlikely as Gary giving a speech about himself in Chapel.  He just didn’t think anyone would find it interesting.

Gary’s been fighting cancer since late last year, and has been off work since early in this one. When he got the diagnosis he told me that he didn’t want anyone’s pity. He’s not interested in becoming anyone else’s drama. His father had died of cancer. Gary is determined to make the best of this situation, as he always has.

So I suggested that, as long as he’s not busy, perhaps he could tell me a few stories, and he’s been kind enough to do so. But he still wonders what I see so interesting about it.

I think the Wabash community is blessed with characters and citizens. The characters are loud, or expressive, sometimes provocative, inspiring, funny; they make us think, or make us mad, or both; they like the limelight, they’re a lot of fun. They’re pretty aware that their lives are interesting, and I’m glad. I enjoy writing about them, the things that interest them. I love learning from them.

But the citizens hold it all together, often in the most inconspicuous ways. They are the ones who make sure the microphones the characters talk through are always on. The comments recorded. The lights burning. They don’t make a big splash; they’re the small and constant ripples that keep the water fresh.

Gary Livengood is a citizen of W
abash. One of his summer jobs is making sure the Chapel sound systems are ready for the weddings when alumni get married here. He meets the groom the evening before the service to brief him on how the mikes, sound, and recording system works, so that their special day will go smoothly and be preserved.

One summer night last year I was walking my dog Jules on campus and saw Gary, standing on the Chapel steps, looking down at his watch. He was supposed to meet an alumnus who was getting married in the Chapel the next day. The alum was more than an hour late.

“Steve, I hate to say it, but if he’s not here in a half hour, I’m just going to have to go home,” Gary told me apologetically. “I’ve got folks waiting for me there.” 

I told Gary I’d have left half an hour ago. But Gary noted that the times around weddings get pretty chaotic, and he wanted to give the guy a few more minutes. In the course of our conversation, the alum finally showed. Gary let out an audible sigh of relief.

Citizens. You don’t hear many stories about them. Hell, they won’t tell them! But try running this College without these people who put others’ interests first as a matter of habit. People who often don’t realize how their small kindnesses hold up their friends, colleagues, their communities, and the world. Guys like Gary are the Gentleman’s Rule personified.

Even as I write this I wonder, Where did Gary get this way of living? Was it from his mom, the English war bride, the elegant woman in the Indiana back road town? From his dad, the D-Day Plus-Three veteran whose family had helped settle that town and kept it alive for generations? Was it from watching the interactions of those British and American relatives, being a child of two cultures?

Gary recalls WW II vets coming to the house when he was 12 or 13 years old.

“I had the advantage of talking to veterans of from the British forces and the American forces,” he said.

All this has to shape the way you come at the world, even while you’re running through the woods outside of Wallace and playing by the creek on a warm spring day.

I hope to get a better sense of this the next time Gary and I talk about his life, which he keeps insisting isn’t very interesting. I hate to be rude to such a kind man, but he’s simply wrong about that.

 
 
 
  1. Alex Livengood

    Thank you for bringing all this out for so many to see. He was a great man, and the best father a son could ask for. I have so many great memories, and I will never forget him. I will also never forget all the sad faces from so many people that he touched there at Wabash that I met on Saturday. You have done so well at putting into words what a wonderful person we have all lost. Dad, I will miss you, and love you very much.

  2. Roberto Giannini

    Steve,
    Thank you for this wonderful piece about my dear friend Gary Livengood, perhaps the best I had made in my three years at Wabash.
    Gary was so much more than an electrician, he was a factotum handy man who NEVER said no to any request for his services, no matter how “strange” or unorthodox it may have seemed at first. He never came back and said: “It can’t be done,” it wasn’t part of his personality and perhaps this sentiment came from his English stiff upper lip!
    As the Fitness Center Director, I have to deal with plenty of electrical, mechanical, and electronic malfunctioning and/or breakdowns, almost on a daily basis. Incidents that would require making phone calls, schedule appointments for technicians, part purchases, facing delays, etc… without mentioning paying large service bills. Instead, Gary was the solution for most of the cases. Within 24 hours our problems would be fixed. He would come back to my office and, with a smile on his face, announce that the problem was indeed not a problem anymore, he had fixed it!
    The first time I spoke with Gary, after we were introduced by the then AD Mummert, I knew I was talking to a person who had won one million dollars in the Hooser’s Lotto a few years back. He never mentioned it to me, never spoke about it until a few months back, one of the last weeks he was at work. After explaining to me the last series of radiation, chemo, and steroid treatments he had gone through the week before, he proceeded to tell me that he was a lucky man. A lucky man, I thought? He has three cancers in his brain the size of golf balls and he calls himself lucky?! He was then that he told me about the Lotto winnings and how blessed he had been to have received such a financial security for himself and his family without doing anything to deserve it. I didn’t tell him but, in my head, I surely knew he had deserved that win and much, much more.
    In the last three years Gary and I would strike conversations about our common European background with Gary saying how much he liked to have a mother from England and the connection he felt with her side of the family. I enjoyed immensely talking to Gary, he was quite a story teller in his reserved and unassuming self.
    Last time I spoke with Gary it was on the phone two weeks before he died. Of the two, I sounded like the one with a terminal disease. He was upbeat, witty, and optimistic as always. When we said goodbye he told me to say hello to the other guys in Athletics and, when asked if it was OK for other coaches to call, he responded: ” … only if they have good joke to tell!”
    Gary was kind, polite, funny, gentle, caring, and very smart.
    I am going to miss Gary very, very much, like I miss Chet Starnes, another gentle and humble soul who left us too early last year.
    R.I.P Gary Livengood, some Gigantic Little Giant!
    Roberto

  3. Up until about seven years ago, Gary and I were just acquaintances, saying hello as we worked together on Commencement activities or other campus events. But one day, we started a conversation and realized that we had two very important things in common: a shared bond as Vietnam Veterans and a shared interest in England. Quickly, we became friends. Gary, because of his background and regular trips to the UK, was always very interested in hearing about my class immersion trips to England (2003, 2005, 2008) and the frequent visits my wife and I made to the UK. We shared stories about British beer, great pubs, and interesting places to see. When he heard that my wife and I were taking a canal-barge trip on the Oxford Canals in the summer of 2008, he really became interested and enjoyed telling me stories he had heard of the calamities often encountered on British canals. Later, when I returned from the trip to tell him about the great time we had, I think it piqued his interest, and he thought seriously about a similar trip.
    Of course, are strongest bond was the fact we both had spent time in Vietnam, about three years apart in approximately the same area (Bien Hoa/Long Binh). With very few veterans on the Wabash campus, we enjoyed talking with each other about our experiences–basic training, our MOS’s, time in country, our time as enlisted men, etc. And then about three years ago, it happened: Gary saluted me as we passed in the Allen Center, and I returned the salute. For whatever reason, our bond suddenly became even more meaningful. And from that day onward, each time we saw each other we saluted each other. We joked that it was a way to bring some “military discipline” to a campus that, at times, needed it. But more important, it was a sign of a brotherhood and friendship. At Gary’s memorial service, I walked up to his displayed picture and gave one final salute. I will miss my friend and fellow veteran. His presence brought joy into my life.
    Spc 5/US Army, Tobey C. Herzog

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