Claude M. Ligon Sr., 69, engineer, co-founder of African Art Museum


Claude M. Ligon Sr., a civil engineer and former member of the state Public Service Commission who was a co-founder of the African Art Museum of Maryland, died of cancer Jan. 13 at Howard County General Hospital. The Columbia resident was 69.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Dr. Ligon was the son of a steel worker who struggled to support a wife and eight children.

In a 1985 Evening Sun interview, he told of being raised in homes that were lit by kerosene lamps and lacked indoor plumbing.

"I spent a great deal of my formative years living on Pennsylvania Avenue, then the main street of black Baltimore. And I spent my junior high days through college working for a men's clothing store, Pop Kelley's," he said.

After graduating from Douglass High School in 1953, he attended what is now Morgan State University. He joined the ROTC in college, and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers after he graduated in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics.

He had a 23-year military career, combining tours of duty with continuing education. He earned another bachelor's degree, in civil engineering, in 1964 from the University of Illinois and a master's in 1969 -- and a doctorate after his Army retirement -- from the University of Maryland, College Park.

He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, and held engineering positions in Germany, South Korea and Vietnam -- in combat -- in 1968 and 1969. He was awarded the Bronze Star for "ground operations against hostile forces," said his wife of 49 years and high school sweetheart, the former Doris Hillian.

Other decorations included the Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal with four stars, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and National Defense Service Medal.

"He didn't talk about those experiences and saw no reason to share them. He was a man who took life as it came," Mrs. Ligon said.

He managed the civil engineering and transportation division of AMAF Industries in Columbia from 1979 until 1985, when he was named to the Public Service Commission by then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

"Claude always exemplified a man of great integrity and was just a good person all the way around. And he brought a great efficiency to his work," said Harold D. Williams, who succeeded Dr. Ligon on the commission in 2002. "He was one of the longest-serving utility commissioners in the U.S., with 17 1/2 years on the commission. The average is five years."

He lived his life by the motto "Hit the ground running," family members said.

Dr. Ligon was a former chairman of the transportation committee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, president of the Great Lakes Conference of Public Utilities Commissioners and a founder and first president of the Mid-Atlantic Conference of Regulatory Utilities Commissioners.

In retirement, Dr. Ligon actively pursued his cultural interests, including the African Art Museum of Maryland -- one of three museums in the country dedicated exclusively to African art-- which he and his wife co-founded in their home in 1980.

The couple furnished the museum with art they acquired on their many trips to Africa. Initially called Gallery Ligon, the name was changed in 1983 to the African Art Museum of Maryland, and they moved it to Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia.

"We wanted people to have a better understanding of African culture and art. And we thought if they had a better understanding of Africa and its art, culture and people, it would make for a better world," Mrs. Ligon said.

The collection has grown from 300 to 2,500 pieces of artwork, and is now housed in Columbia's Historic Oakland mansion. A branch is planned for Baltimore, at 1840s Plaza -- the former City Life Museums complex near the Shot Tower.

"As a family, they were attracted to Columbia, which was an open community. And as it grew, they became an important part of it," said Dr. Michael Kelemen, a member of the art museum's board and a cardiologist. "And their museum became one of the enduring qualities of life in Columbia."

A jazz fan who was especially fond of the music of John Coltrane, Mr. Ligon had served as chairman of the Baltimore-Washington JAZZfest. He also was an avid Ravens fan and enjoyed golfing.

Dr. Ligon was a parishioner of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church.

Services were held yesterday.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Claude M. Ligon Jr. of Laurel; a daughter, Carol L. Oduyoye of White Plains, Charles County; a brother, Tilford Ligon of Baltimore; two sisters, Sarah Robbins of Boston and Delores Henderson of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.

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