Remembering Desmond M. Tutu

Following Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu’s recent death, in reading an article about his funeral, I was stopped by its description of him as “diminutive.” Casting my memory back to our evening with him, I had to concentrate to recall that, yes, he was a short man, but his presence was immense, emanating love, humor, and inspiration.

The occasion was Independent’s 2008 Gala for Liberty, at which we bestowed the Alexis de Tocqueville Award on three extraordinary men: the venture capitalist/venture philanthropist William K. Bowes, Jr.; the musician/actor/director and champion for Cuban freedom Andy Garcia; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984.

The Alexis de Tocqueville Award carries no monetary prize, and honorees make their own travel arrangements. Originated by David J. Theroux, the award has been accepted by an extraordinary array of truly remarkable individuals, and I will always be grateful to him for making it possible to meet and be inspired by the honorees. And among such a pantheon of the justifiably famous, the exceptionally humble Desmond Tutu stood out.

Organizing galas such as this, involving world-renown individuals with multiple obligations, almost always entails some 11th-hour challenge to be overcome. In the case of this, a few weeks before the event, word came that Archbishop Tutu needed to be in Geneva at nine in the morning a day and a half following our event for a very important UN committee meeting. Looking into commercial flights, the logistics seemed impossible, and thus began an extensive campaign reaching out to everyone we could think of who might conceivably provide a private flight for him to be able to make it. Finally coming up dry, the only option, which seemed impossible to expect of this extremely eminent 77-year old cancer survivor, was a red-eye flight via Newark that would put him into Geneva on the morning just prior to his meeting.

Yet, in the event, that is what he arranged to do.

The evening of our gala, Archbishop Tutu mixed jovially with our guests at the reception, posed cheerfully for countless photos, and generally emanated extreme graciousness and good will. The dinner was organized with each course featuring cuisine from the respective honoree’s home, with each presented the Alexis de Tocqueville award following “his” course: a Bay Area salad for the first course, followed by the award to William Bowes; Cuban fare for the main course, followed by the award to Andy Garcia; culminating with a South African dessert and Archbishop Tutu’s presentation.

His talk was spellbinding, in turns evoking tears as he recounted horrific descriptions of apartheid-era abuses healed through victims and perpetrators meeting together as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—to, at the end, laughter, then awe as he cast a vision that swept the entire audience away with him.

Ultimately, Archbishop Tutu showed the world Man as God made us to be, and made each of us who met him want to live up to the command to Love our Neighbor. He surely modeled and lived it, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to carry his inspiration with me.

I invite you to watch his presentation to get a taste:

Mary L. G. Theroux is Chairman and Chief Executive of the Independent Institute.
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