(c) 2012 Jeanne Powell
"When a Legend Visits"
all rights reserved
Last month I tore myself away from answering emails and walked across campus to a convocation at a parish church. This was not a religious event, but the announcement read more like a summons than an invitation to assemble, perhaps because of the identity of the keynote speaker. The altar was hidden by draped fabric in front of which was a large video screen, with chairs to the left and a podium to the right.
This was a secular affair celebrating academic achievement where a college dean quoted Deuteronomy from the Old Testament; then the keynote speaker stepped forward and spoke for 30 minutes in spellbinding detail about our duty as citizens of this beleaguered planet.
I sat in a comfortable wooden pew near the front, the better to see the keynote speaker, he who had never wanted to be a legend or anything like it. As the dean invoked the name of the speaker’s father and his father’s image filled the video screen, quiet tears flowed down my face and I marveled at these tears, after all this time. His father was a young senator whom CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite labeled “a lion in the streets,” who would not rest even for a second and who went where other public figures were afraid to go – the copper mines of Chile, plague-ridden urban neighborhoods, hovels in Appalachia.
The face of his martyred father filled the video screen behind the podium and I worried about the welfare of the keynote speaker. Had he been warned that his father’s image would be displayed so long and his name invoked so often? He did not look at the screen as the dean spoke, and I held my breath even as tears continued to well up and spill down my cheeks.
I did not know this son of a legend, had never met him, yet knew all about him, more than most. Never had I heard him speak. At first his voice was hoarse from so many public appearances that I had to lean forward to catch his words. As he gathered momentum, the keynote speaker found his voice and was not troubled by the evocative image held so long on the screen behind him. He had found his cause in this life and has helped to make it ours, both by the skill of his arguments and the passion of his commitment.
As the richly robed academics left the church, I spotted someone I knew and walked with her to the reception, across the street and upstairs in a room with a view. Soon the keynote speaker appeared, to be lauded by academic leaders and listened to respectfully by well-placed alumni. After the applause, photo flashbulbs and the handshakes, he took a cell phone call from his son before preparing to leave for the airport.
Then I saw my chance. Carefully I prepared my words. I felt as though I had been waiting a long time to say them, not only for myself but also on behalf of so many others, and I did not realize it until now. The keynote speaker and I shook hands, and then I said “I remember, I remember, I remember everything, and I want to thank you and your family for all that you have given to this country….”
He enveloped me in a sudden bear hug; I was overwhelmed. I said “thank you” and quietly moved away, remembering this was a public place.
During the rest of the reception I felt a great peace descend on me. It is never too late to say thank you, and always wise to recall that others may not have done so, or may not have realized the need.
(c) 2012 Jeanne Powell
A skilled litigator on behalf of the environment, the keynote speaker teaches at a law school. He is celebrated for having brought successful legal actions against governments and corporations which pollute our natural environment. Time Magazine named him as one of its "Heroes of the Planet." For him the fight to protect our environment is a fight to protect democracy.
Causes Jeanne Powell Supports
Union of Concerned Scientists, VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), Doctors Without Borders, Waterkeeper Alliance, PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility...