Remembering Maya Angelou and Her Visit to Westminster College

Remembrance of Maya Angelou’s 1983 visit to Westminster College, courtesy of Dr. Dave Collins, Professor of English (1973-2013):

Thinking tonight of Maya Angelou and the night she came to read at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Truth to tell, I hardly remember the reading though I do remember passages from “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

What I do remember is the gathering after the reading at the home of Bill and Mary Ellen Bleifuss.

At first most people were nervous. What does one say to Maya Angelou? But as the night wore on and the drinks flowed, and Ms. Angelou settled in as though she had known everyone in the room for years, everything changed. She chatted and laughed and charmed … and everyone felt good.

When the time came for her to leave – she was booked into a hotel in a bigger town 30 miles away – someone noticed it was snowing heavily. “You must stay here; there are four empty bedrooms upstairs,” Mary Ellen said. And after the usual protests, it was decided. Maya Angelou would stay in Fulton for the night. But, she insisted, she would help with the dishes by way of thanks. Gracious beyond words.

She stayed, but there was no way Mary Ellen was going to have Maya Angelou in her kitchen doing dishes. Hours later, Jean and I went home and talked for more hours of Maya Angelou.

The next time we saw her she was on television reading her poem at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. So it goes.

Remembrance from Cathy Myers, Class of 1984:

I remember Maya Angelou’s reading at Westminster very well. I remember how incredibly eloquent she was and gracious. Even when she was being critical you couldn’t help but feel good.

At one point in her reading, she observed that WC had no persons of color on the faculty. My initial reaction was, “No, she must be mistaken.”

I realized as I went through the faculty list in my head that she was right. The way that she brought it up was so gentle, so well meaning. She was like an elder who doesn’t order change, but instead to make observations so that the recipient of that observation initiates change on their own volition.

I had the opportunity to talk with her briefly as the reception that followed. I told her what an inspiration she was to me because she ‘made it’ on her own. I was a product of the time, of the 80s, when the notion of ‘making it’ consumed us. I expressed myself in a clunky cliche; she responded with a graceful “thank you.” I could tell from the look on her face that making it was not an obsession with her like it was for those of us going out in the world in the mid 80s. Her aspirations were higher.

I’ve thought a lot about that look on her face over the years.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014).

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