UPDATE: A memorial service for Morgan Livingston will be held on Sunday, Feb. 19. See the bottom of this article for details.
“She was a giant. She was like a sequoia, a tree that you come up against when you’re walking through the forest, and you can’t help but stop and take it in.” -Peter Acosta, former student who went on to earn a master's degree in social work
Morgan Livingston, who since 1977 had taught Human Services students at Western Washington University, passed away peacefully from illness on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012. She had turned 70 years old just three days earlier.
Livingston was a full-time senior instructor at WWU, teaching out of the University Center of North Puget Sound in Everett, and she also taught part-time at Everett Community College and at Skagit Valley College’s Clinton campus on south Whidbey Island.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from the University of Oregon in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Before joining the Western faculty in 1977, Livingston managed the Career Development for Women program for the state Department of Personnel, among many other duties.
Throughout her professional career, Livingston worked as a private consultant to numerous social service and educational entities, including the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state of Alaska’s Office of Child Advocacy, and the National Organization for Human Service Educators.
To the hundreds of students who knew and loved her, Livingston was a force to be reckoned with. She worked tirelessly and with intense vigor to ensure her students took good care of themselves and utilized their talents to help others.
“With her students, she would work to find what is the absolute greatest strength they have that they cannot see, and then she would bring it out of them and send them out into the world,” says Peter Acosta, a former student of Livingston’s who, as did so many of his classmates, considered her a dear friend. “She would bring out the best in you so you could be of maximum service to the world. I am on fire in my life because Morgan helped me light my own fire.”
On the night before she died, and again the next morning, many of Livingston’s current and former students stood watch outside her hospital room at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, singing to her and remembering the woman they so greatly admired.
Jennifer DePrey was among them.
“I've never had another professor like Morgan, not before her or in the time since,” she says. “She was the special kind of person that makes you realize the world is bigger and brighter than you think it is. If I am ever half as gracious and mischievous and wise as her, I will regard my life as well spent. Morgan influenced so many lives and was someone so special to all of us. We will continue to cause change and mischief and beauty in this world for the rest of our lives, and we'll carry her with us as we do.”
Causing change, mischief and beauty -- that’s exactly what Livingston wanted from all of her students, says Anne Blanchard, a colleague of Livingston’s in Human Services.
“She loved teaching, building relationships with students and sending them out into the world to effect positive social change,” says Blanchard, a senior instructor at Western.
Former students remember Livingston's daunting reading requirements -- eight books per quarter -- and the high expectations she had for each of them. They remember her emphasis on personal responsibility, asking students "What are YOU doing to make a difference." They remember her strong commitment to the Human Services field, her tireless advocacy for the voiceless and her love for her beloved brother and his family in Oregon. They remember her honesty and her intelligence. Her loyalty. Her humility. Her ability to ask brilliant, probing questions that would elicit just the right responses. Her penchant for inspiring her students to leave their zones of comfort. Her interest in diverse cultures, lifestyles and ways of being. Her fearlessness in challenging the status quo and the powers that be. Her philosophy on life: "I'm not trying to change the world; I'm just trying to give it a little nudge." Her huge heart.
Most of all, Livingston's students remember the love she held for them, each of them, as individuals. Livingston cared deeply for all of her students, and she was careful to ensure they were having fun and caring for themselves, Blanchard says.
“She wanted students to understand that if they did not take care of themselves, they would not be effective in caring for others in the ‘helping’ field of human services,” she says. “Morgan often opened her classes by asking students questions like, ‘What delighted you today?’ Or, ‘What did you do for fun last weekend?’”
Several of Livingston’s students have noted that due to extenuating life circumstances, they had considered dropping out of school, and that they wouldn’t have completed their degrees without Livingston’s love and support.
“I learned a lot of things from Morgan Livingston; not all of them were academic,” DePrey says. “As much as I learned from her ambitious reading lists and probing seminars, I learned more from her kind spirit and example. Thanks to Morgan, I learned to speak my mind when I was hesitant, to take care of myself so that I would be better able to take care of others, and to remember that each and every person I come into contact with is valuable and precious.”
Denise Serfas, a former student who now works as the social services manager of Elder and Adult Day Services, agrees.
"I can hear her reminding all of us to 'look for moments of joy, practice good self-care and to make a little mischief' while we work to make the world a better place," she says. "She had this magical, graceful way of inspiring passion for the human services field, social justice and equality within each of her students that will carry on in all she touched."
Livingston won the 2006 Educator of the Year Award, presented by the Northwest Human Services Association."
In her nomination letter for that award, fellow instructor Judy Deiro touted Livingston’s rapport with her students: “As her office mate, I watch students return who had her 10, 15 or 20 years ago to just say hello, to share their experiences, to thank her and to take with them again just a little bit of her wisdom and encouragement. She always has time, and she always loves to connect with them. She never seems to forget who they are and has a story about each one. Many students tell me that Morgan is the wisest person they know and is the faculty member who made the difference for them.”
Acosta, who credits all of his work in social services to Livingston's inspiration and support, sums her up this way: "What a knockout."
In Livingston’s honor, the Everett Human Services Scholarship has been renamed the Morgan Livingston Human Services Scholarship. Send donations to Morgan Livingston Scholarship Fund 2202640, c/o WWU Foundation. 516 High St. MS 9034 Bellingham, WA 98225. Donations to the fund also may be made online on the WWU Foundation website.
More quotes from current and former students about Livingston:
I have never had a teacher put so much effort into showing her students that she genuinely cared about them. She taught me how to relax. I am still in the process of learning this lesson but well on my way. Actually taking time just to self care has helped me in so many ways. I am more relaxed and am trying to teach myself how to just let unimportant things go and taking care of myself actually allows me to do better work.
She was so vibrant, vivacious, and fun. She always had a smile and a quick wit about her. She let her students be who they were, and she accepted them. If someone was in need, she was right there helping them along. She had so much wisdom to share and she share in a way that the recipient did not even know until later. I will never forget her smile, her laugh, her wisdom.
The books that she made us read were full of women that inspired me and I would have never known about any of them without her. I know this is selfish, but I want her back. I was so looking forward to her teaching my summer Human Development class. I couldn't wait to have her again as a teacher. I am saddened by the fact that there are thousands of future students who will never know her, never have her teach them about self care and Ida Wells. She will be missed.
It will be sad to never see her wink at me as we pass each other in the hall.
Morgan was someone who could bring magic back into the lives of others. She guided her students into discovering the strengths they didn't know they had within and become better people. What did she love? She loved life, her students, and politics. She was effective at reaching students because of her ability to mentor them into discovering those strengths within. She had a unique gift. She could assist without enabling. When you spend time with Morgan you come away a better person. When someone is transformed into a better person they cannot help but have a passion for the one who made the discovery possible. For many of us, that person was Morgan.
A memorial service has been planned for 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Whidbey Institute in Clinton. A service for family, friends, and colleagues will take place from 1 to 2:30 p.m., and a community potluck and bell-ringing ceremony for students, alumni and the greater community will follow, ending at 5 p.m. The Whidbey Institute is located at 6449 Old Pietela Road, Clinton, WA 98236 (3.5 miles north of ferry landing in Clinton). The Whidbey Institute has limited parking, so attendants are encouraged to carpool if possible.