The country, and indeed the world, lost an iconic figure last week with the passing of Maya Angelou. I was fortunate to have had two encounters with this great lady, and both left an indelible mark on who I am as a writer and as a person today. If you ever need to be reminded of grace, beauty, poise and incredible kindness driven by a steely strength of resolve for what is right, spend some time reading her books or listening to the many interviews conducted with her over the years. Here is one of my favorites of her being interviewed by Diane Rehm.
1983 - First encounter
I first met Maya Angelou in 1983 in a chance encounter at an antique/junk shop outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the time, I was doing consulting work with various social service agencies around the state and made it a habit of taking the back roads and stopping along the way at antique shops to look around and maybe buy something. More important, it was a chance to visit with the proprietor and local folks who would invariably be hanging out, drinking a cup of coffee and just letting life sink in.
On this particular day, I was jaw-boning with the owner and in walks this tall, elegant woman who I instantly recognized. I had read "I know why the caged bird sings" a few years earlier, and there had been recent news coverage about her appointment as a professor at Wake Forest University with plenty of photographs of this amazing American treasure.
When she walked into the store, it was more like a glide. I am not a student of auras but if there ever was a more radiant aura than the one that surrounded her you would be hard pressed to find it. It may sound like I am exaggerating but I am not. As soon as she entered the store her visual presence was matched with this incredible voice as she gave a hearty, booming, yet soothing hello to the owner of the store. She was a frequent visitor and greeted him like an old friend. After greeting him, she turned to me, looked me dead on in the eyes and said "and who is this fine young man?" Okay, here is what you need to understand about how she said those words to me. First, double the time it takes to say that very short sentence, and that will give you an idea of the pace of her question. Then think of the feeling you have when you are savoring a fine meal - one that permeates all of your senses. That is how each and every word spoken felt. I had never heard anyone speak like Maya Angelou before that chance meeting (I was all of 27 years old) and I have never heard anyone speak that way since, other than her.
The next 30 minutes were magical. She had the ability to speak to you like you had been her neighbor for years, even though you had just met. What a relief for me, as it helped me move from acting like a star-struck 12-year old at a Justin Bieber concert (I have been to one, I know what they look like) to what I love most - just a couple of old friends shootin' the breeze.
I asked her what she was looking for in the shop, and she said that she loved to go into places like this and look for old hymnals so that she could experience the poetry of the words from long ago. "You can find so much inspiration in the pages of these books," she said.
After she left I looked at the owner of the shop and said, "That was amazing." "Yeah," he said, "She comes in a lot and I get the same feeling every time."
1995 - second encounter
Fast forward 12 years to 1995. At the time, I was coordinating the national conference for the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health. I remember calling Barbara Huff, Executive Director at the time, and saying to her, "Okay Barbara, you are always preaching to me that the conference has to be totally for and about families, so what about giving them the gift of a keynote presentation by Maya Angelou?" Without hesitating, she said in the wonderful mid-western accent of hers, "Oh yeah, that is a great idea, let's do it!"
It was a bold move for a relatively new national organization still finding its way, but Barbara was determined to send the message that the Federation conference was a place for families to revel in their shared strength and become inspired by speakers who walked the walk. I will always be grateful for Barbara's leadership and willingness to go out on a limb to bring the magic and inspiration of Maya Angelou to the families of the Federation.
The day before her presentation I had the opportunity to conduct an interview in her suite at the Willard hotel. I have never been in the presence of royalty, but this must be how it feels. What made it better was that I was received at the door by one of her assistants and with the formality accorded to royals, led into the sitting area where she was relaxing comfortably on a grand sofa, looking as regal as one would look in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair. Talk about a dramatic entrance!
She rose and greeted me with those piercing eyes and booming yet soothing voice as if we were old friends. When I first contacted her office to plead with her to come to the Federation conference, I had told her assistant of our chance meeting 12 years earlier, thinking that somehow that brief encounter would get her to say yes. I'm pretty sure that had little to do with it, but her greeting to me in the grand suite of the Willard hotel was "My dear Scott, how good to see you. I am so sorry I don't remember you from all those years ago, but I do love the antique shop where we met. I still look for old hymnals," she said with a beaming smile. "Would you like some coffee, some tea or water?"
Instant melt. Just like that I was no longer in the grand suite of the Willard hotel, with an internationally famous writer, poet and symbol of triumph over struggle. It was just me and Maya sittin' on the porch in a couple of rocking chairs.
If you were at the Federation conference in 1995 and had the opportunity to attend Maya Angelou's presentation, I encourage you to share your reflections. My solid bet is that your experience was similar to mine - mesmerizing, spell-binding and oh so inspirational.
As part of her remarks that day she read her poem Still I Rise. Watch this video of her reciting this powerful poem to get a sense of the strength and grace of this most amazing American treasure.
Rest well Dr. Angelou. Your spirit carries on in the lives and work of many.
President & CEO
Children's Mental Health Network