The death of South African activist Desmond Tutu has brought back memories for retired faculty of Mount Allison University of the archbishop’s visit more than thirty years ago.
Tutu died on Sunday at the age of 90.
The anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner visited Sackville, N.B., in 1988 to attend Mount Allison University’s convocation and accept an honorary doctor of laws.
Now-retired chemistry professor Ken Adams wrote the citation for Tutu’s honorary doctor of laws.
“Here I am a chemist, and I was asked to write this,” said Adams.
Adams believes he was asked to write the citation because of the work he and his wife Janet had done with Amnesty International and for human rights.
Ken and Janet Adams were also tasked with welcoming the archbishop and his wife, Leah Tutu, to New Brunswick. The Adams picked up the Tutus from the Moncton airport and shared a car back to Sackville.
“We had this wonderful experience of having them all to ourselves for about an hour,” said Ken Adams.
Ken and Janet Adams remember the conversation with the Tutus as pleasant and relaxed. They spoke of the situation in South Africa, and the couple took the opportunity to ask him about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.
“His reply to us was, ‘You know you have a problem, and you’ll do something about it. The South African government doesn’t want to do anything about the inequalities in South Africa,'” said Janet Adams.
When Ken Adams heard of Tutu’s passing, he planned to write to his friends about his experience with Tutu and share Tutu’s convocation address along with a photo.
“I hope they remember this is a man of great humanity,” said Ken Adams.
“He’s a great loss to the human rights movement in the world,” added his wife, Janet.
Tutu gave impassioned, yet humorous speech
Although Tutu gave his speech over thirty years ago, Ken Adams still remembers the general tone of the address.
“It was profound, it was humorous. It’s something those students and we will remember for a long time,” he said.
Tutu was introduced by Stephen Lewis, a politician, public speaker and diplomat. Lewis was also receiving an honorary degree from Mount Allison.
“For Archbishop Tutu, I am filled with more respect and admiration and affection than I can possibly convey. It is one of the proudest moments of my adult life, simply to bring him to this podium,” said Lewis. “This is no ordinary convocation, this is a convocation to remember.”
Tutu opened his address by congratulating the graduating class with a touch of self-deprecating humour.
“I have still to discover why, when the real reason is to see our loved ones get their degrees, people are put through the hoops and made to listen to graduation addresses,” joked Tutu. “But it may be that there are a lot more masochists than I knew.”
Tutu went on to give a 30-minute speech, most of which focused on the state of apartheid in South Africa. He hailed Canada’s contribution to the fight against apartheid, and called on the audience members to help the cause.
“It isn’t part of our agenda to discuss whether we will be free. We will be free, all of us in our land, Black and white. And it will be wonderful to say, you helped us in the process of becoming free,” said Tutu.
Tutu remembered for his humility
In addition to his humour and powerful words, Tutu left an impact that day with his display of humility.
Retired philosophy professor Paul Bogaard, who was present onstage at the convocation and provided Lewis’s introduction, has one particular memory from that night.
At an exclusive dinner held by the chancellor, Bogaard said guests were seated while servers came in and out of the kitchen to serve hot food.
“Being servers, they were meant to whisk through and not be seen,” said Bogaard.
But Archbishop Tutu, said Bogaard, wasn’t interested in keeping the server unnoticed.
“He stopped and stood up and everyone in the room went, ‘What’s happening?'” said Bogaard. “Tutu turned to his server, took her hand, shook her hand, asked her name, introduced himself, asked how things are going.”
“[He] took the special occasion to let her know, and of course let the audience know, that that sort of inequality went against his grain.”
Bogaard said the gesture grabbed the audience’s attention.
“That recognition, as you can tell, really stuck with me.”