By all accounts, Carol (Dahl Leacox) Livingston has enjoyed a spectacularly successful life as a lawyer, mother and wife. But one thing has always been missing.
On May 14, that changed as she walked across the commencement stage in Memorial Stadium, her family cheering her on, a moment 63 years in the making. She got her diploma — Bachelor of Science in Business Administration — for her studies at the University of Nebraska from 1955-59.
“I did the work,” Livingston said. “I knew I did the work. I did it on purpose. It’s what I wanted. I just didn't get to stay and finish my hours.”
The recognition came after Livingston’s daughter, Cathy Leacox Farman, sent an email to the university. After hearing her mom’s story of finishing the work for a degree but not receiving it, Cathy decided to make it right.
“(Cathy) is from a different generation,” Livingston said. “And she's done wonderful things with her life. She just wanted this fixed for me. If I wasn't going to do it, then, by golly, she was just going to.”
Life at Nebraska U
Livingston, who grew up in Alliance, Nebraska, loved her university years and spent them like most — dancing, football games, building snowmen on snow days. She and her brother, William Dahl (Class of 1958), grabbed Reubens on Sundays at The Cornhusker Hotel. A member of the Kappa Delta sorority, a dedicated tutor to the football team, so efficient with her schoolwork to the point where friends made jokes.
“If I left the room saying I’ve got to go study, they’d say ‘Oh, you better get out the books. Carol’s gonna study this time,’ ” Livingston said. “I had a reputation of not studying, but actually I did. I just did it when everyone else went to bed.”
With almost all graduation requirements completed in her senior year of 1959, Livingston also had big things transpiring in her personal life — she was married and pregnant with her first child.
While not so far in the past, Mid-century America was a world away in ideology. It was often said tongue in cheek that women attended college to get their “M-R-S Degree.” Women in business were a rarity with societal norms frowning on a woman in business school, let alone a pregnant woman working toward a career. And for Livingston, with required classes completed in the prior seven semesters, an attempt to schedule optional business classes for a final semester was rejected. And she was told maybe Teachers’ College would be a better fit.
“I wanted to take the classes I wanted to take,” Livingston said. “My father was in business. I wanted to be in business.”
So, Livingston didn’t attend class and got an infant — son Dan Leacox — in April instead of a diploma in May. She thought she’d finish in the next fall semester, but, by then, she was expecting Mike, her second child. Then came Cathy, followed by Jeff.
The kids became her full-time job and Livingston moved on without her degree.
During their childhood years, the kids were not aware of what happened. They wouldn’t know until they were grown that motherhood had cost their mom a diploma.
“It's never been defined as Dan being the cause,” Cathy Farman said. “But now he gets endless grief for it.”
Life since Nebraska U
The kids were one, two, three and four when Livingston moved to Modesto, California, in 1963. For a while, they kept her occupied. She quickly became busier as president of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and social concerns chair for the Council of Churches.
As she became involved in the community, she saw where she could be of help. Through the churches, Livingston started three food banks and a daycare program to prepare disadvantaged children for school, encouraging people to do what they can, give what they could.
“People are so happy when they know what they can do,” Livingston said.
Livingston started craving independence and wanted to work for money toward putting her kids through college — to get that, she realized, she might just have to go back to school. Enter second husband Gene Livingston, a lawyer who suggested law school. However, she lacked that undergraduate degree.
“The most romantic thing I think I ever heard in my life was when he said, ‘I will help you with your tuition.’ That sounded like ‘I love you,’ ” Livingston said. “I got my education. (But) I need a piece of paper. That was the hardest time because I should have had my degree then. And then if I wanted to go to law school, I could just have done that.”
She earned that piece of paper at California State University, Stanislaus. The family moved to the southeastern United States when Gene taught law at West Virginia University, then to Davis, California, when he was hired by the governor.
While she was in West Virginia, knowing they were soon going back to California, she tried to late-apply to University of California, Davis School of Law. Livingston, then in her late 30s, remembers calling the young president of the King Hall Women’s Law Association to plead her case. She asked for Livingston’s age, and then: “’Why would a woman of your age want to go to law school?’ This sounds like old times.”
Another year of waiting it was. She started law school in fall of 1977, and during that time the family really had to help out, Livingston said. Everyone had to up their participation in household jobs to allow their mom be a student again.
“It was such a change in my life,” Livingston said. “I'd done wonderful things, really fun things raising the kids, in the community, and I really enjoyed that, and I felt accomplished about it. When I went to law school it was more about me, everybody supporting me. That doesn't happen to moms a lot.”
Livingston and Farman were the first mother-daughter pair to graduate from UC Davis School of Law, Livingston in 1980 and Farman in 1985. Son Jeff followed in 1988, another first.
As a traditional student, with far fewer responsibilities, Farman is still proud of her mother to this day.
“I've always admired her for taking on the challenge of law school while she was a mom of four teenagers,” Farman said. “And it's harder to build a career when you're in your 30s and 40s than it is when you're in your 20s. It's just harder. She never stumbled. She just was fully committed to the opportunity that came to her with her graduate degree. And she built a great legal career, all the while still being a mom to her four children, and then a grandma to the 11 grandchildren that have come after.”
Livingston’s first job out of school was for a labor law firm in Sacramento, where for 12 years, she worked for labor unions, litigated and negotiated contracts, and became a partner in the firm.
Later she decided to pursue litigation and administrative law with her husband — who had earned the nickname “Mr. Regulatory Law” — at his firm. Regulatory law was especially gratifying to Livingston, as she got to work with the same people over the years, making good friends with both clients and opponents. There she became the managing partner.
“I was the boss,” Livingston said. “I was the employer, and I wanted to be a wonderful employer. And I wanted to do it right and have people who enjoy their workplace. They were safe and well paid. That was my payoff.”
Yet, at first, she didn’t know if it would be wise to work alongside Gene.
“There are funny assumptions when you go to work with your husband, that maybe you're not the managing partner but you're the administrator, or you're just doing the staff work,” she said. “I was a good lawyer, and I didn't like that implication, but you just tough it out and then you have to prove yourself.
“Girls always have to prove themselves.”
Livingston said her identity turned out to be a major asset.
“I'm a female, girl-person,” she said. “We like to chat and solve problems, right? And if I can't figure out this or that I have no trouble saying, ‘Hey, will you help me think about this?’ We're different from our male counterparts. We're pretty good and very successful at that.”
She retired at 75. By then it was time to focus on her parents (who were nearing 100) and throwing parties for family birthdays, weddings and graduations.
After her long and eventful career, Livingston’s missing Nebraska degree was but a small chapter in the family lore. It was a story to share with the kids, but no one thought much of it.
“As a female, it always was something I registered not in any particular way except ‘Huh. That's weird. That's not right,’” Cathy said. “But nothing more than that.”
Then Cathy raised her own daughter prioritizing education, just as her mom did for her. She started thinking more about that missing piece from 63 years ago — how it would never happen today, how it shouldn’t have happened then.
“As time went on, in the last five years, it was just bothering me more and more,” Cathy said. “Because as a world, as a nation, we're just so much more focused on the wrongs of the past and thinking about how to repair the wrongs of the past. I thought, well, everything's terrible, globally and nationally, but there's one little wrong that could be repaired.”
So, she did something about it. She emailed Shelley Zaborowski, Nebraska Alumni Association executive director, wondering about the possibility of an honorary degree — a good thought, though there’s a long process to obtain one. Zaborowski visited with Mike Zeleny, the chancellor’s chief of staff, and suddenly the idea sprang forth — why not present Livingston her actual degree?
“We care about her, we want her to know that,” Zaborowski said. “We want her to feel the Husker love, we want her to be a part of our family to the extent that she wants to feel like a Husker. It just felt like the natural and right thing to do, to celebrate this person and welcome her with open arms.”
Gail Meyer, associate registrar, provided oversight for the initial approval. Melody Torske in Graduation Services pulled a degree catalogue from the time Livingston was attending, comparing requirements between the University of Nebraska transcript to University of California records. The graduation analysis was passed along to the College of Business, where Jennifer Mostek, director of business advising and student engagement, finally gave the word that a degree could be awarded. Dean Kathy Farrell signed off and it was a win for everyone involved.
“We are all about seeing students graduate,” Meyer said. “That's what we're here for. And whatever we can do to help a student achieve their goal to receive their degree — we take great pride in that.”
On Christmas 2021, with her entire extended family surrounding her, Livingston was surprised with a gift. A red sack with a big N on it, Husker swag and pompoms overflowing. A certificate that said she would, after all this time, receive her hard-earned and long-overdue degree.
“It says hard-earned,” Livingston said. “That was so important because I didn't slide by. I earned that sucker. ‘Your hard-earned and long-overdue Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. Welcome to the Husker alumni family.’ I cried and cried and cried.”
At age 84, Livingston grasped her degree. Turned the tassel to the left. Became an alumna. While in Lincoln she also caught lunch with Chancellor Ronnie Green, toured the campus and saw how much has changed.
She was in for a big surprise when she saw the College of Business, now in the gleaming Hawks Hall. Old college friend reunions were also in order — Livingston says being an alumna provides an automatic touchpoint for staying connected, something she previously missed out on.
This saga ultimately has a satisfying conclusion, and Cathy will make sure to pass on her mom’s story to any future family members. It’s important to celebrate the milestones, the victories.
“We grew up as a family fighting for others’ rights,” Cathy said. “We walked on picket lines and we participated in the voting process. My mom was one of those poll workers who would pick up election results. Everything back then was all about the rights of people to vote, the rights of people for shelter, food, to be treated with dignity and fairness. That was my whole life growing up — my parents standing for that.
“The closure for this is that my parents were doing this and yet there were injustices imposed upon my mom. It was really important that we also stand for the injustices that we personally experienced too. It's one thing to do that for the world. It's also necessary to do that for oneself and one's family.”
Learn more about Livingston and her journey on the Nebraska Alumni Association website.
— Ronnie D. Green (@RonnieDGreen) May 14, 2022