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.