I was sitting in my bed grinning from ear to ear as I watched this bigger than life human being take his first steps of freedom in 27 years.
Tears rolled down my face as I watched he and his then wife, Winnie Mandela, walk down the road occasionally raising their fists in triumph. It would be later that I received a call that would forever change my life.
I will never forget the day I received a call from then Assemblywoman Maxine Waters. I initially was skeptical that it was her on the phone. After all, we had never met. She was calling, she said, to ask me a question. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in being Nelson Mandela’s publicist during his Los Angeles visit. HUH? What? No, I have better things to do! DUH! Are you kidding me? I was in shock. It took me a minute to digest and process what she was saying. After all, I wasn’t a publicist. I was a reporter. I asked her why she was calling me. She said, “I asked five people who I should call and four of them told me to call you.” I asked who they were. She said, “that’s not important.” She was right.
I can’t even begin to tell you how ecstatic I was to meet Nelson Mandela. I had to go up to his suite to officially meet him and give him his schedule. I walked into the living room of the penthouse suite at the Biltmore. He stood up and extended his hand. I introduced myself. He walked toward me and gave me a BIG HUG. Nelson Mandela was hugging ME!!! The two of us sat down on the couch. We had small talk for about 5-10 minutes before I presented him with the schedule. The two of us looked it over. He asked if he could move some things around. Of course, I said, ‘yes.’ DUH! Was I really going to deny him anything? He asked if he had to do all of the interviews. I told him, “No.” You tell me which ones you want to do and I’ll make the other ones go away.
One of my favorite memories of Mandela was when, in the middle of one of our meetings, he stood up and said he wanted to take a walk. I told him I would go and get security. He said, “no, I just want to take a walk.’ I said, Mr. Mandela, you can’t just go for a walk. He looked at me in disbelief. I suddenly understood what I had just said. However, I was also quite aware that his safety was on my watch. Mr. Mandela got up and walked toward the door. I was by his side. We walked out of the suite and went to the elevator. Like stealth bombers – security came out of nowhere. They looked at me and asked, ‘where are you going?” I said, “Mr. Mandela would like to take a walk.” The security guys looked at me like I was 12 ways stoooopid. One of them looked at Mr. Mandela – who calmly informed him he wanted to take a walk. When Mandela was informed he could only leave the building escorted by security, he went back into the suite. I looked at Mr. Mandela and jokingly said, “You got me in trouble.” We both chuckled!
A few minutes later, Winnie came out of the bedroom. She addressed Mandela as ‘daddy’ and he addressed her as ‘mommy.’ It was precious.
While he was in Los Angeles, I accompanied Mr. Mandela to the Coliseum where he gave a stirring speech. I stood in the wings pinching myself. I couldn’t believe I was in his presence. I couldn’t believe I was holding conversations with this man. I couldn’t believe that he would hold my hand as we walked.
There are a couple more stories, but I won’t bore you. Just know that being in his presence was unbelievable. He was so calm and friendly and warm. I’ve never met anyone like Nelson Mandela. He withstood 27 years of imprisonment and walked out of prison without a hint of bitterness. Who does that?
I asked him why he wasn’t bitter. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Being bitter is a waste of time. A lot of time has already been wasted. There is much to do. I don’t have time to be bitter. What’s done is done.”
Meeting, working with and talking to Nelson Mandela was the most exciting and important thing to ever happen to this little girl from Detroit. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you Congresswoman Maxine Waters for trusting me!!!!!
I love you Mr. Mandela. RIP!
Darlene Donloe is a seasoned entertainment and travel journalist whose work has appeared in People, Ebony, Essence, LA Watts Times, Los Angeles Sentinel, EMMY, The Hollywood Reporter, Rhythm & Business, Billboard, Grammy, CYH, BlackVoices.com and more. Contact her via: [email protected].