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George Livingston, Richmond leader, laid to rest

on January 19, 2012

If you knew George Livingston, you knew how much he valued a tight, efficient schedule.

For years, he was clear and direct to his loved ones and his pastor about how he wanted his send-off to go. “Dad wanted us to keep it short,” said his daughter, Grace Livingston-Nunley. “So we respect that.”

More than 500 family, friends, residents, friends and many of the city and region’s biggest civic luminaries descended on St. John Missionary Baptist Church Tuesday for the former Richmond mayor’s funeral.

While the ceremony skimped on the pomp and long-winded remarks, there was no shortage of vivid memories, many shared by the political leaders who worked with Livingston during his brilliant prime, a period that included his triumph as the first elected African American mayor in the city’s history.

“George wasn’t just a black mayor,” said Councilman Nat Bates, whose career in Richmond politics began in the 1960s alongside his friend and mentor’s. “He was a mayor for all people.”

State Senator Loni Hancock, who partnered with Livingston on many regional issues when she was Berkeley’s mayor in the 1980s and 1990s, called Livingston “a man for all seasons.”

“Thank you so much for sharing him with us for so long,” Hancock said in remarks directed to Livingston’s wife, Eunice, and family.

Livingston died January 7 after a long bout with diabetes and kidney disease. He was 78.

A who’s who of Richmond’s politicians were among the crowd under St. John’s vaulted ceilings. Among the past and present leaders on hand with Bates and Hancock was current Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and the entire city council, which issued a proclamation thanking Livingston for his service to the city. Also on hand were former Mayor Irma Anderson and former City Councilman Jim McMillan, among others.

McMillan, who was part of one of the city’s most powerful political coalitions along with Bates and Livingston during the 1970s and 1980s, brought the crowd to roaring laughter several times while sharing anecdotes of Livingston’s personal quirks. He said Livingston must have held a secret desire to be a football quarterback, judging by his frequent use of the position in often-hilarious analogies.

McMillan riffed on Livingston’s loose regard for the Brown Act, a state law prohibiting elected leaders from discussing agenda items for public meetings (“This is between you and I, Mac”) and his head-honcho attitude toward certain areas of the city that he considered his strongholds.

McMillan’s got the biggest laughs with his tale of how a mentally-disturbed man began coming to council meetings, sitting up close and staring at the dais – with a shoebox sitting next to him. “All of us were nervous about him,” McMillan said.

At a subsequent meeting, McMillan continued, he noticed that Mayor Livingston, sitting a few spots away, was sitting abnormally straight in his chair. McMillan nudged Councilman john Ziesenhenne.

“Is something wrong with George’s back?” McMillan remembered asking.

“No,” whispered Ziesenhenne, “he’s wearing a bulletproof vest.”

Surprised and concerned, McMillan caught up with Livingson after the meeting.

“Do you think the rest of us need some protection?” he asked. Livingston assured his friend that he was in no danger.  “George said, ‘Mac, if you want to destroy the essence of a football team, you wipe out the quarterback,” he recalled.

The crowd erupted in laughter.

Throughout the ceremony, speakers relayed their favorite memories of Livingston, who was perhaps Richmond’s most visible public official from the mid-1960s to 1993, when he lost re-election in a tight race with Rosemary Corbin. Livingston credited an early 1960s meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. at Contra Costa College as a turning point toward his career in public service.

His daughter said he was a man of “God, family and community.” Clergy and friends described him as “smooth as velvet,” the “ultimate unifier,” and a “master of compromise.”

One of his seven granddaughters said, “To me, charisma is they make you feel better just by being in their presence. That was my grandfather.”

Bates credited Livingston with leading the way in turning Richmond from a “racist city to an affirmative action city,” by restructuring government services and providing employment opportunities for previously shut out minority groups.

Bates also noted that, for all his successes in winning elections, building consensus and spurring new developments across the city, Livingston showed steely grace after electoral losses in the early 1970s and in his last race in 1993. Bates, who remained close to his friend and spoke with him frequently up to the end, paraphrased Dr. King in saying that a man’s character can best be measured by his response to adversity.

“George was a great man,” Bates said.

After the ceremony, a white hearse took Livingston to the plot at Rolling Hills Memorial Park that he selected years ago. The vantage point overlooks the city he helped build.

“We’ve received an overwhelming amount of responses and condolence,” Livingston’s son, George Jr., told the crowd. “We love you, and dad loved this city.”

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