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Poet Angelou brought grace, dignity to local visits

Thursday, May 29, 2014
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Maya Angelou walks with then-acting Skidmore President Phyllis Roth, at a Skidmore College event in March 1993. Skidmore Professor Joanna S. Zangrando is behind them.
Maya Angelou walks with then-acting Skidmore President Phyllis Roth, at a Skidmore College event in March 1993. Skidmore Professor Joanna S. Zangrando is behind them.

— Former poet laureate Maya Angelou, who died Tuesday, spoke at least twice in the Capital Region and left a lasting impression.

Those lucky enough to meet her during her visits described her as a compelling, charismatic figure and a force for change.

Angelou was a featured speaker at Union College’s Presidential Forum on Diversity lecture series in 2007.

Gretchel Hathaway, chief diversity officer for the college, said the event was held in the largest facility on campus, but the crowd — which she estimated to be at least 400 strong — spilled into the surrounding yard. Despite the size of the audience, Angelou made the gathering seem intimate.

“You almost felt like you were in her living room and she was just having a conversation with you,” Hathaway recalled.

During her presentation, Angelou shared anecdotes and poems with what Hathaway interpreted as a mission to empower the audience.

“It was more of giving us the right, the privilege or the responsibility of making sure that we understood we have the power to make change and that if we see something that’s going on that makes us uncomfortable, that hurts somebody else, we should use that power to make change,” she explained.

Angelou addressed a crowd of more than 2,000 at Skidmore College on March 8, 1993, less than two months after she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

“The gymnasium was packed,” recalled Mary Zeiss Stange, a professor of gender studies and director of the religion program at Skidmore. “She addressed the crowd briefly but potently.”

During her presentation, Angelou treated attendees to a mix of poetry, songs and personal anecdotes.

According to a Daily Gazette article, the tone of the event was set when “more than 2,000 people who were gathered in the college sports center stood and cheered as Angelou and a group of college officials and students sang ‘Amazing Grace’ while walking to the stage.”

Phyllis A. Roth, Skidmore’s acting president at the time, bestowed on Angelou an honorary doctor of letters degree during the event.

At the time of Angelou’s appearance, Stange was director of Skidmore’s Women’s Studies program and, as such, was appointed to escort Angelou to the Albany Airport the morning after her presentation.

“That morning was a gray sky, snowy morning, but I do remember it was one of those mornings where the early morning light was breaking through the clouds,” Stange recalled. “She talked about the light and that led her to some free-associating about the power of sense impressions and the power of sound, the power of poetry and music, even when you can’t attribute meaning to it.”

She called the time spent with Angelou “very real time.”

“I don’t think that Maya Angelou was comfortable with the idea of just making pleasantries or just passing time,” she said.

Terry Diggory, retired chairman of Skidmore’s English department, also met Angelou when she visited Skidmore. He described her as “the personification of dignity.”

“But it was kind of collective dignity, because she kind of commanded respect from you, but she also did that by way of conveying her respect for you. And she was also a very warm person,” he explained.

During her speech, he said Angelou talked about the importance of keeping education unsegregated.

“She spoke directly to the African-American students in the audience and said, ‘You go to that library and you claim Shakespeare for yourself,’ that is, don’t feel there is only one tradition which can speak to you, but claim the entire tradition of world literature for yourself,” he recounted. “I thought that was tremendously generous and expansive, in terms of her vision.”

 
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