Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the moral
leader in the ending of apartheid in South Africa . Tomorrow is his 80th
birthday, and today, writer, journalist and commentator Marybeth
Redmond is reflecting on the deep imprint that Tutu’s life has left on
(REDMOND) "Grab your notebook," the news director
bellowed at me. "I need you to do an interview." I was fresh out of
college and my job as a TV reporter in South Bend, Indiana was
stressful. I headed to a nearby studio, as the boss shouted that my
guest was a famous clergyman speaking at the University of Notre Dame
that night. It was 1985.
As I entered the room, a beaming,
bespectacled man enveloped my hands with both of his. Stunned, I
recognized him to be Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa , a recent
Nobel Peace Prize winner. He was dressed in traditional black garb,
about 5-foot-3, with shimmering perspiration on his rounded forehead.
For years, Tutu had been working to dismantle apartheid, a legalized
system of racial segregation that denied blacks and people of color
basic human rights.
He had come to Notre Dame to lobby for
divestment of the school’s assets in South Africa . He believed that
economic pressure from U.S. institutions would force the white
government to change its laws in favor of racial equality. But, the
president of Notre Dame, Father Theodore Hesburgh, wasn’t budging. A
priest who advocated for civil rights in the American south, Hesburgh
supported leaving the university’s investments intact so as to maintain a
stake in South Africa .
As a result, Tutu was appealing to
students directly, inviting them to ‘demonstrate for divestment’ under
the Golden Dome. The task at-hand was somewhat monumental during these,
the Reagan years. Membership in the college Republican club was booming
and student-protests were not en vogue.
For half-an-hour, I
queried this tiny, but larger-than-life man. He briefed me on the latest
township violence. Words like liberation, nonviolence and
reconciliation punctuated his sentences. Here was pure passion,
single-minded purpose. AND , his message was delivered with feisty
compassion, not anger and bitterness.
While my upbringing
emphasized right and wrong and the Golden Rule, being a good person
meant not making others too uncomfortable. This is why Desmond Tutu
became a compelling figure for me. He was committed to truth and justice
with his entire being, despite the ramifications. I longed to know my
own mission-in-life that clearly.
So now, 25 years later, I can
see how this impromptu meeting activated my own passion for social
change. Tutu’s example would spur me to motivate St. Michael’s College
journalism students to delve deeply into the lives of marginalized
Vermonters. I would co-found a writing program at Chittenden
Correctional Facility as a vehicle for incarcerated women to put word to
their struggles. A serendipitous encounter with Archbishop Tutu has
left a long and lasting imprint, even here in the green hills of