It was October of 1985, and I was in my senior year at Iowa State University. I had been interning as a graphic designer at the Women’s Center. I’m guessing it was in this capacity that I was helping on a committee in charge of bringing guest speakers to campus. At one of the committee meetings, there was an ask for volunteers to pick up a well-known author and poet at the airport in DSM later that week.
Three of us were chosen for the mission, an adventure that would forever hold a place in our memories and ultimately make a lasting impression on our lives. We found ourselves driving a Buick Century to the Des Moines airport on a Wednesday in early October to pick none other than the renowned author and poet, Maya Angelou.
I wasn't nervous on the drive to Des Moines. To be honest, I think I was too ignorant and unaware to be nervous. In those days, I’m guessing most of my thoughts centered around grades, boys and which bar we were headed to for dime draws that week. I wasn’t particularly well-read or involved in politics. And, I was most certainly unaware that I was about to meet a national treasure!
I remember arriving at the airport, greeting Ms. Angelou and getting her settled in the front seat while her assistant and the other student ambassadors rode in back. I was the driver because, being from Des Moines, I knew my way around town.
While I don’t recall everything we talked about on the 45-minute drive back to Ames, I do know that Ms. Angelou did happily remark about the multi-racial threesome who had arrived to pick her up…she joked about us being an “inverted Oreo” and even made mention of it in her speech on campus later that evening (miracle of miracles, you can still listen to Maya Angelou’s 1985 speech at Iowa State University here). She said that it shouldn’t have been a big deal to have two white women and one black woman greet her, but she emphasized that it was a big deal. She said she admired our easy rapport and she wished the world had more of that.
Our car conversations also included her role in Roots (she played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother), her job as a professor, and how much she enjoyed working with young people. When we arrived in Ames, we dropped her at the venue with the promise that we’d be back later to hear her speak.
That evening, I arrived at the Sunroom of the ISU Memorial Union to find a packed auditorium of people who had come to hear Maya Angelou. I can honestly say that I was in no way prepared for what I was about to hear and experience. We took our seats and, from the moment Ms. Angelou took the stage, I was utterly spellbound. She completely captivated the audience with her stories, readings and powerful poetry. She even sang for us. Never before and never since have I heard such a commanding and compelling speaker. I was blown away by her wit, humor, intellect and powerful delivery.
After the evening’s event, we were invited to attend a reception in Ms. Angelou’s honor at someone’s off campus home. By then, I WAS nervous. By then, I FULLY understood that I had been in the presence of greatness. I also understood that I had been woefully unprepared for the opportunity I’d been given that afternoon and was ashamed of myself for not being more well-read and more aware of this brilliant woman.
I remember being somewhat nauseous as we entered the living room of the home. Ms. Angelou was seated alone on the sofa and, as we entered the room, she rose to give us each a big hug and invited us to sit with her. She was warm, gracious and put us immediately at ease with her kindness.
Over the years, I remained an admirer and follower of Dr. Angelou and was deeply saddened when she passed away in 2014. Whenever I would see her on television in the years that followed our meeting, I would be overcome by a range of emotions… embarrassment over the ignorance of my youth; anger and frustration that someone more worthy hadn’t been sent to pick up Ms. Angelou in our place (why had ISU entrusted such an important job to three silly college kids?!). Mostly though, I’m filled with gratitude to have gotten to spend a few moments with the incredible and brilliant Maya Angelou.
I wish my memory of that afternoon and evening was clearer, but I think much of Maya Angelou’s lasting impression on me can be summed up best by one of her own quotes: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelo
I’ve never forgotten how she made us feel.
36 years later, it has been my great pleasure to collaborate with Chicago graphic designer, Ashlé Easley, to create our “Let Diversity Bloom” cycling jersey with the intent of inspiring more inclusivity and diversity in the sport of cycling. We paid homage to Maya Angelou by featuring her “In diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” I can only hope that Ms. Angelou would be pleased with this collaborative effort and its greater mission.