It happened sometime in 1986. I don’t remember the exact date. She was 58, I was 47 at the time. The occasion was the inauguration of Northeastern Illinois University’s new president, Dr. Gordon Lamb, who, I soon learned, would come in like a lion. Rumor had it that the Regents of the State University System had selected him to clean up the flakiness associated with our institution, known in Illinois as “an innovative public urban university,” and as dean of the Center for Program Development, I was the person nominally in charge of all that flaky innovation. Dr. Lamb in fact motivated me to look for and eventually leave for a higher-ranking job in another state university, this time in Minnesota. But that’s a story for another day. This is a much happier story and occasion...
Somehow Dr. Lamb had access to Maya Angelou. Consequently, she spent four days on our northside-Chicago campus during his inauguration week. Since there were four of us deans, each was assigned one day on which to squire her around campus and deliver her to her various meetings and occasions in a timely fashion. My day proved unforgettable, and I’m sure my colleagues fall felt the same way about theirs. If memory serves, I met her in the president’s office. Schedule of her appointments in hand, I escorted her to each and every one. Especially memorable was a session in a large classroom with perhaps 50 African American students, where she did a line-by-line exposition of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. She didn’t dumb anything down but was somehow able to be a bridge between the world of Shakespeare’s troubled Dane and the different but sometimes troubled world of those present. It was a command performance. Between one meeting and the next, Ms. Angelou and I talked about this and that. I told her about the formative role Florine, our black housekeeper, had played in my upbring and life. In many ways, Florine was my real mother. On another of our five-minute walks between things, I also revealed that I had first seen her back in the early ‘60s, right here in Chicago, well before she had become an internationally known author and public personality. Back then, I was a young Yale bachelor’s-degree recipient working at my dad’s grain-brokerage agency before returning to New Haven for graduate school, and she was a dancer (!) serving as the warm-up act at the Northside’s Mr. Kelly’s for the Clancy Brothers.
Perhaps the high point of her four days on campus was the keynote performance she gave in our auditorium, which was packed. Next to us sat the two African American Work-Study students from my Center. Ms. Angelou entered in colorful African dress. At a magisterial six feet in height, she looked like an African queen. As she presented an evening of African American poems and short stories, I noticed how straight in their chairs my students were sitting, obviously rapt and proud of this leader of our and especially their culture. It was an unforgettable night for them and for me. Thank you, Maya Angelou, for being a memorable person in my life and theirs. You were and are a queen.