EvCC alumnus remembers Maya Angelou’s visit in 1991

  • Sat May 31st, 2014 9:40pm
  • News

By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist

She was raped at age 7. By 17, she was a single mom. To earn a living, she worked in strip clubs.

Those details come from an Associated Press story that also describes its subject, Maya Angelou, this way: “Tall and regal, with a deep, majestic voice, she was unforgettable whether encountered through sight, sound or the printed word.”

There were sorrowful depths and great heights in Angelou’s life. The celebrated poet, who died Wednesday at 86, shared all of it, all over the world.

On Jan. 23, 1991, the place was Everett.

Angelou was brought here by Everett Community College for a public program in an Everett Pacific Hotel ballroom. Her talk coincided with the college’s Human Rights Week.

The author who first gained fame with her 1970 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was in Everett two years before her magnificent appearance at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. On Jan. 20, 1993, she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the Capitol, becoming the first poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost in 1961.

It all seems so long ago. Yet to those fortunate enough to meet Angelou in Everett, memories of her wit and wisdom are strong.

Cynthia Andrews was EvCC’s student body president in 1991. She was involved in selecting speakers for a lecture series, and remembers working with Joann Ashlock, then the college director of student activities. “We got to choose Dr. Angelou, which was amazing,” said Andrews, 54, who now lives in Seattle.

Andrews wasn’t just out of high school. She had gone back to school at 30, a single mother struggling to raise her children. She had run a teen-parent program. After graduating from EvCC, she worked at the college and was a leader in Snohomish County’s NAACP chapter.

For Angelou’s visit, she said, “I was fortunate enough to be the host — an African-American student who had re-entered school.” Andrews picked Angelou up at the airport, and with a friend had lunch with the poet.

“She just spoke so many wonderful things to me, things she shared about valuing who I am,” Andrews said. “I remember her telling the audience she was honored to share the stage with me. And she bowed to me on the stage. I was just blown away. She was so gracious.”

Rich Haldi, who retired from EvCC in 2008, is a former dean of students and vice president of student services. He remembers Angelou spending time on campus before her program. And he joined Angelou and a group of students for dinner.

“I remember this evening well,” Haldi said. Along with her inspiring talk, Haldi said the poet “helped make the day and evening a very fun time.” He isn’t certain, but believes the group had dinner at Everett’s old Cookbook restaurant, on Broadway near the campus.

“She wanted to hang around with the student leaders. She didn’t want to do anything formal,” said Haldi, 73, who lives in Everett. “She was so well known, but she made us feel like we were the special ones.”

Haldi recalled Angelou reading several poems, and talking about the Civil Rights Movement and her life. “She did a nice job conveying to the students that they needed to be involved with their community,” he said.

For Andrews, the most memorable part of Angelou’s visit came after her public talk.

“It had been a full day. She spoke so eloquently, but after her performance she was exhausted. She finally said no more autographs,” Andrews recalled. “Then she looked over at my children. My daughter would have been 6 or 7. My girlfriend’s daughter was there. She called over the girls, and performed her ‘Harlem Hopscotch’ poem.”

“My daughter will never forget that,” Andrews said.

The poet’s notable quotes have popped up in news reports and on social media since her death. Among the most shared is this one: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

For Andrews and her now 29-year-old daughter Geneva Murphy, those words couldn’t be more true.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.