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Redmond: Desmond Tutu At 80

10/06/11 5:55PM By Marybeth Redmond
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(HOST) Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the moral leader in the ending of apartheid in South Africa . Tomorrow is his 80th birthday, and today, writer, journalist and commentator Marybeth Redmond is reflecting on the deep imprint that Tutu's life has left on her own.

(REDMOND) "Grab your notebook," the news director bellowed at me. "I need you to do an interview." I was fresh out of college and my job as a TV reporter in South Bend, Indiana was stressful. I headed to a nearby studio, as the boss shouted that my guest was a famous clergyman speaking at the University of Notre Dame that night. It was 1985.

As I entered the room, a beaming, bespectacled man enveloped my hands with both of his. Stunned, I recognized him to be Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa , a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner. He was dressed in traditional black garb, about 5-foot-3, with shimmering perspiration on his rounded forehead. For years, Tutu had been working to dismantle apartheid, a legalized system of racial segregation that denied blacks and people of color basic human rights.

He had come to Notre Dame to lobby for divestment of the school's assets in South Africa . He believed that economic pressure from U.S. institutions would force the white government to change its laws in favor of racial equality. But, the president of Notre Dame, Father Theodore Hesburgh, wasn't budging. A priest who advocated for civil rights in the American south, Hesburgh supported leaving the university's investments intact so as to maintain a stake in South Africa .

As a result, Tutu was appealing to students directly, inviting them to ‘demonstrate for divestment' under the Golden Dome. The task at-hand was somewhat monumental during these, the Reagan years. Membership in the college Republican club was booming and student-protests were not en vogue.

For half-an-hour, I queried this tiny, but larger-than-life man. He briefed me on the latest township violence. Words like liberation, nonviolence and reconciliation punctuated his sentences. Here was pure passion, single-minded purpose. AND , his message was delivered with feisty compassion, not anger and bitterness.

While my upbringing emphasized right and wrong and the Golden Rule, being a good person meant not making others too uncomfortable. This is why Desmond Tutu became a compelling figure for me. He was committed to truth and justice with his entire being, despite the ramifications. I longed to know my own mission-in-life that clearly.

So now, 25 years later, I can see how this impromptu meeting activated my own passion for social change. Tutu's example would spur me to motivate St. Michael's College journalism students to delve deeply into the lives of marginalized Vermonters. I would co-found a writing program at Chittenden Correctional Facility as a vehicle for incarcerated women to put word to their struggles. A serendipitous encounter with Archbishop Tutu has left a long and lasting imprint, even here in the green hills of Vermont.
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