Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 23, 2005

St. John ADA Coordinator doesn’t let life’s challenges slow down his mission



LAPLACE – The first thing you notice about Tom Livingston is the cowboy hat.

Maybe it’s an indication of the wild ride he has been on.

Whatever the hat means or doesn’t mean, Livington is a man who is an inspiration to any who meet him.

Happy, positive, cheerful-he comes across with all those qualities. And while that may not seem like such an unusual thing, it begins to take on a little bigger meaning when you seem Livington roll up in his wheelchair.

He shakes hands, even though his fingers can’t really open to do so. And he puts you at such immediate ease with his smile, his happy demeanor and the obvious intent he has to spend his life helping others.

“I’m a survivor,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to feel sorry for. Sure, I tear up sometimes when I watch some sad movie and it makes me think a little bit about my situation. But 98 percent of the time I’m a happy camper. I’m making a difference for other people, wheelchair or not.”

Livingston is what he calls a “highly functional quadriplegic,” which means he has a broken neck in three places and can move much of his upper body, but not much else.

“I’m just happy to be alive and seeing my family grow,” he said. “My kids will be better people due to the added responsibilities this has given them, so even though I don’t like this, I can handle it.”

And handle it he has.

Livingston isn’t just managing through his life, he is making the most of it. And probably more than most people who walk on two legs.

He is well known in town as the St. John Parish ADA Coordinator, a position the St. John Parish Council approved three years ago. He makes

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sure all government buildings are disability accessible, but maybe even more importantly, he helps any person in the parish get any kind of assistance they can. Then he is also a part-time teacher in the local school system, in particular, teaching students to prepare for LEAP tests.

“There is a lot of governmental funding for people with disabilities,” he said. “And I’ve learned about most of it, and know how to help people qualify for stuff. Right now I am helping two people write an application that will absolutely give them $50,000 to help them since they are severely disabled. They have to get on a list and wait for their turn to get the money, but they will absolutely get the money. Most people don’t have a clue that there is help like that.”

And that is Livingston’s mission in life-to help people, both professionally in his job, and even personally as a devout religious man.

Livingston has battled his way through a life of challenges. And perhaps that is all the more reason to be impressed with his attitude today, now as a 48-year-old married man with four children.

Growing up in Johnstown, Pa., his parents divorced when he was nine, and he lived with his father and older sister.

“Those were the days when you could ride a bike three miles to baseball practice,” he said. “Today I’m afraid to let my little girl ride down the street.”

But from the time he was born, there was something special that affected Livingston and may be part of the reason he lives with a purpose to make the most of his life.

“I was born a twin, but my brother died within days,” he recalled. “It’s the kind of thing you never forget. To this day I wonder why I was the one to live. It’s kind of the story of my life, how I was the one to make it.”

He went to college at Indiana University and immediately began to excel. He was the first student from his hometown school to win a national DECA award for sales. But through his young life and into adulthood, he said the call to live a life for God was always there.

“When I was seven I told my mom I wanted to be a minister,” he said, having been raised as a Lutheran. “I used to pray and blow kisses to God.”

He bounced around between Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado, working a lot in the grocery business and finally being affected in a strong way religiously when he worked in Colorado for a man who was a Jehovah’s Witness.

He was married for the first time in 1979 and had two children, but after divorcing, ended up in LaPlace in 1984, again back in the grocery business.

He married for the second time in 1988 to a woman who he recently celebrated his 17th wedding anniversary with.

“She’s a gem,” he said.

However his health began to fail at the age of 30 when he was diagnosed with severe arthritis, then had surgery to remove spinal cord tumors in 1992.

“I personally thought I would not live long,” he said. “So I prayed to God to have a boy so my wife could always see me when she looked at my son. The same month I prayed that, my wife became pregnant. I remember laying my head on her stomach from the beginning and telling her I knew it was a boy.”

A son was born, and he named the child Tim, after his brother who had died.

He eventually went to work for himself as a handyman in the late 90s, and life seemed good.

“I was getting active as a Jehovah’s Witness, something called a Pioneer. That was someone who worked 90 hours a month knocking on doors and sharing the faith with people,” he said.

However Livingston has an interesting take on religion, whether it be his own or Christianity in general.

“I know there are a lot of people who want to make a big deal out of the fact that their religion is the right one. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses are that way. But I just tell people that I don’t care what religion you are, if you read the Bible and apply it, you’ll be happy,” he said.

But just as his life was going along fine, now with two children from each marriage, the life changing accident happened on November 12, 1997.

The family was riding to Colorado, but early in the morning, Livingston said it started to snow and then he hit some ice. The rented 1998 Grand Am he was driving slipped off the right side of the road and flipped several times. He was wearing a seat belt, but passed out and didn’t regain consciousness until later that night in the hospital.

“I knew right away I had a serious problem,” he said. “But the amazing thing is that no one else in the car had any serious injuries.”

That began a two year rehab that he says actually brought him closer than ever with his wife.

“I know that these kinds of accidents can break up marriages,” he said. “But my wife was unbelievable as a caregiver for me. She is just so special to me.”

But that wasn’t the end of Livingston’s trials.

In Dec., 2000 he was diagnosed with Melanoma, and has since had two surgeries, continuing to take chemotherapy to this day. In 2002 he was told he had five years to live.

“I don’t really know what the future holds for me, and as for now, the cancer is still with me,” he said. “But I feel pretty good and just live my life wanting to make the most of every day. I love my position as ADA coordinator since I can make a difference for so many people, and that is really the greater good of all this.”