PEMBROKE — Scott Bigelow, the public information officer at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, described the late Maya Angelou’s appearance at the college in 2002 as an unforgettable experience.
“The demand was incredible for her,” he said. “She was a show; it was a performance, not a speaking engagement … . It was wonderful. She sang, recited poetry, danced and cried — and people cried with her. It was very moving.”
The celebrated author, feminist icon and civil rights crusader died Wednesday at the age of 86 in her home in Winston-Salem.
Born in St. Louis on April 4, 1928, Angelou is perhaps best known for her bestselling 1969 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the first in a series of autobiographies chronicling her tumultuous upbringing in the Jim Crow South.
Angelou worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other figureheads of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and in 2011 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian award.
Angelou, who taught American studies at Wake Forest University for a number of years, paid a visit to UNCP on Feb. 26, 2002, as part of the college’s long-running Distinguished Speaker series.
Her appearance drew a record audience for a distinguished speaker, according to Bigelow. So many people turned out that Angelou had to be moved from the Givens Performing Arts Center to the Jones Athletic Complex in order accommodate the crowd.
Those who couldn’t squeeze inside the stadium watched Angelou’s speech on closed circuit television inside the University Center Lounge.
Abdul Ghaffar, who served as the university’s director of Student Activities from 1993 until 2006, booked Angelou and communicated with her in the months leading up to her visit. He recalled the legendary writer having a highly approachable and compassionate personality.
“She came in on a private bus from Winston-Salem and we didn’t really know what to expect,” Ghaffar said. “I can unequivocally say that she was the most dynamic speaker we’ve had at the university. College-age students have seen a lot and experienced a lot, so you don’t get many speakers who can make them laugh and cry and experience a whole gamut of emotions like she did. Everybody was extremely interested in everything she had to say.”
Ghaffer said that the event staff was initially worried about the college’s ability to meet Angelou’s expectations, but were put to ease by her trademark humility.
“Her rider was a little scary because of some of the requests,” he said. “We thought it was going to be very difficult but when we got on her bus, she said, ‘Don’t worry about any of that stuff, I just need some water.’”
Ghaffer said that Angelou was not oblivious to how much she meant to the more than 2,600 people who had gathered inside the stadium to hear her speak.
“Talking to her was like sitting down and talking to your grandma. She was friendly, warm and very spiritual. You got the feeling that she was a very special person and she made you feel special,” he said. “But she was also very thoughtful. She never just answered questions quickly; she would think and then speak. She understood the importance of her words. She represented everybody and when she spoke, you could tell that that is what she was aiming to do.”
During her speech, Angelou challenged the audience to stand their ground when faced with “pejoratives.”
“Sometimes I think we climb up the weakest side of the mountain,” she said. “Courage is the most important of all virtues because without it all the other virtues cannot be applied consistently… . Each of us has the possibility to change the world where we are. I will change what I can, and what I can’t, I will try to see a new way, and, maybe, that will change.”
Like countless others, Ghaffer said that he was sad to learn Angelou had passed away.
“It’s a great loss,” he said. “She transcended race, transcended sex, transcended everything. She touched a wide array of people.”
Jaymie Baxley can be reached at 910-272-6146, or on Twitter @Jaymie_Baxley