First Ever Peace Corps Volunteer Dies in San Francisco (Ghana)

Fellow Ghana PCV Ed Mycue reported the sad news that Tom Livingston (Ghana 1961-63) died today, January 24, 2017, in Oakland, California Kaiser Hosptial. Tom is credited with being the first ever PCV when he took up his post in 1961 as an English teacher at a secondary school in Dodowa, Ghana.
Gerald T. Rice in his definitive history of the first years of the Peace Corps, The Bold Experiment JFK’s Peace Corps published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 1985 and based on his Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Glasgow tells how the Volunteers arrived at Accra airport in Ghana on August 30, 1961. (The Volunteers bound for Tanzania did not arrive until a day later.) The Ghana PCVs began to travel to their assignments in different parts of Ghana two weeks later. On September 12, 1961, Tom Livingston became the first Volunteer to begin working overseas.
According to Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961-63) who organized the 25th Anniversary of the Peace Corps, the planners decided to have “the first” Peace Corps Volunteer speak at the opening of the reunion. “Obviously, there was no “first” individual,” Roger told me. “We couldn’t have a whole group speak, so we began a search for the first PCV at his/her assigned field post. In Rice’s book, The Bold Experiment,  he identifies Livingston as the first PCV at his post. Rice also explains why Ghana was selected by Shriver over Tanzania to be the first group in-country. “The choice of Ghana as the first Peace Corps destination was symbolic,” Rice would write. “It had gained its independence only four years earlier and it was regarded as the most militant Third World nation; its dynamic leader, Kwame Nkrumah, was the self-appointed ‘savior’ of African freedom movements.”
Karen Schwartz in her oral history of the Peace Corps What You Can Do For Your Country, published in 1991 by William Morrow and Company, has this account from Tom about his arrival in Ghana.
 
In 1961, many of the nonaligned countries saw the Peace Corps as another aspect of American imperialism. A couple of the Ghanaian newspapers were very circumspect in their coverage of our arrival. The implications was, “You better behave yourself. We’re watching you.” Even President Nkrumah’s party was very opposed to having the Peace Corps. But Nkrumah was trying to expand the education system in Ghana. He’d just built about twenty new secondary schools and didn’t have enough teachers.
 
Despite the political line, the Ghanaians were very warm and welcoming. We were the first white people they had seen ride the mammy wagons, which were these flatbed trucks with wooden benches and a canopy over the top. Some British people I knew in Accra told me we were scandalizing the Europeans in Ghana because we would ride those things. But it was a revelation to the Ghanaians and they loved it. They thought we were real characters and they used to say, “Marry my daughter! Marry my daughter!”
Tom was from Woodale, Illinois, and had a Ph.D. in African History from Columbia University. For over 40 years he was a high-end dealer of centuries-old English & American home furnishings, art, and accessories & textiles, and owner of  Tom Livingston Antiques in the San Francisco Bay Area.
One more note:

Georgianna Shine McGuire (Ghana 1961-63) tells of a reception in Washington for the President of Ghana, John Jerry Rawlings, during the Clinton era, where Tom was invited as the “first PCV in Ghana.” He needed a ‘date” as Georgianna recalls, and she went with him. “It was an elegant affair at the White House, I admit,” Georgianna recalled. “As we went through the receiving line, Tom, who had taught in Dodowa, Rawlings’ home town, greeted President Rawlings in the local language. Rawlings did a double-take, replied, and then reached over to his wife and said something to the effect of “this man speaks our language!”

“It was great fun, that visit, since we were guests as President Rawlings arrived at the White House to be welcomed by President and Mrs. Clinton, all on a lovely cold winter day.  For Tom, however, the real thrill was a reception at the State Department in an extremely snazzy room that had ‘very important’ American antique furniture, most of which Tom seemed to know by name, year and provenance.

“Now, about Tom being the first PCV. What I remember is that his Headmaster showed up at Legon to take him to Dodowa, days before the two weeks at Legon had ended. The cry went out, ‘They’re taking Tom away.’ And so he went, thereby becoming the “first ever PCV on the job.”

 

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  • Just hearing Nat King Cole singing “UNFORGETTABLE” and it fits Tom and we wraiths as I see us now looking back down the happy trails to who we were and what we believed and hoped-for with not a mean bone in our bodies. Now Peggy Lee is singing “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places….I’ll be looking at the moon/ but I’ll be seeing you.” Seeing us, as then.

  • The San Francisco Chronicle online has an obituary for Tom on 29 January 2017.
    Tom’s memorial will be tomorrow, Feb 1, 2017 Wednesday 1-2pm, Chapel of the Chimes, end of Piedmont Avenue, Oakland.

  • We (Richard Steger and myself) joined Karel F. Wessel, Tom’s life partner, and Tom’s nephews David and Bob and their wives Nancy and Beth with 100 friends this afternoon, 1 – 2pm at the memorial in Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes for Thomas W. Livingston (July 26, 1936 – January 24, 2017). A reception followed. Nine persons beside the nephews David and Bob spoke warmly about Tom and all his teaching, antique profession, his education, his piano playing eminence, and his penchant for mentoring others. Near me were two other former members of the Peace Corps, one of whom spoke about the decades of the Piano Club friendship. I mentioned that I represented the Ghana 1 group and noted that Marion Morrison’s medical team wouldn’t clear her to leave her facility. Marion was also in Ghana 1 and we and Tom and 47 others of our Ghana 1 contingent trained together at UC Berkeley in the summer of 1961. (Those who know Marion will know it had to take a team of caretakers to keep her away.) The clergyman (Quaker, I think) recited the Twenty-Third Psalm. Also an extract written in 1693 by William Penn. And from (1858 – 1911) Sam Walter Foss’ “The House By The Side Of The Road” that you’ll maybe recall ends the 4th verse with “Let me live in my house by the side of the road And be a friend to man”. Tom taught English in Ghana from 1961-1963. He later attended Columbia University earning a PhD in African History, later teaching at UC Berkeley from 1968-1975 before starting his own business in antiques and decorative arts until his death. He was a gentleman and scholar of art and history and a skilled pianist. Besides his decades long partner Karel F. Wessel, he is survived by a great niece and four great nephews along with their parents. The 1693 William Penn piece includes this: “And this is the Comfort of the Good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they liver as soon as they die. For Death is no more than a turning of us over from time to destiny. “

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