Herb Brown already had met the pope and Mother Teresa. He had endured a rocky introduction to the president of India.
And now he found himself sitting in a high-back chair waiting for South African President Nelson Mandela to enter the room at his mansion in Pretoria. A similar if more opulent chair awaited the president, but when he walked in and apologized for being late, he glanced at Brown's wife, Diane, who sat alone on a sofa.
"I'm going to sit over here on the couch," he told Brown with a smile.
"He was so casual and likable," recalled Brown, a Clearwater businessman who had called on Mandela in his capacity as Rotary International's president.
Eventually, the two men got down to business. Brown had spent most of 1996 globetrotting and promoting Rotary's goal to eradicate polio in the world. South Africa had allowed vaccinations, and the crippling disease had been vanquished. But in some of the more backward African countries, the effort suffered as rumors condemned the vaccine as a sterilization effort.
Rotary International, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) had asked Brown to meet with Mandela, elected two years earlier as South Africa's first black president. He had enormous influence throughout the continent, having survived 27 years in prison for his defiance of racial law.
Brown asked for help. "If you could reach out to the heads of state,'' he said, "it would make all the difference in the world."
"We can certainly do that," Mandela said.
He ushered the Browns to a garden behind the mansion, where teams of journalists had been summoned for an important press conference. Brown said he can still see Mandela facing the microphones. His stamp of approval was enough to allow the vaccine in areas where it had been considered suspicious.
"It saved children from this awful disease," Brown said.
Brown, now 90, was treated like royalty himself last week as he addressed the Rotary Club of New Port Richey while the world mourned Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at 95.
"He was an amazing man," Brown said, "and I am privileged to have met him."
During his term as Rotary International's president, Brown and his wife traveled to 85 countries to highlight the polio eradication mission established in 1979. A noted philanthropist in Clearwater who had built a fortune through furniture stores, drugstores and the Checkers restaurant chain, Brown served in many other Rotary leadership positions and helped raise millions of dollars for the polio effort. He drew inspiration from the statistics in the United States, where in the early 1950s more than 35,000 people, mainly children, were crippled by polio. By 1979, the country was declared polio-free through vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin.
Before heading to Africa, Brown met with India president Shankar Dayal Sharma, whom he described as Mandela's opposite.
"I told him that India had more polio than the rest of the world combined," Brown recalled. "He was indignant and at first distrustful. He said, "What do you mean?!' After awhile, he calmed down and agreed to support the effort."
Brown said that in one long weekend, India provided vaccines to 150 million children. Today, he said, India is polio-free.
Brown entertained the New Port Richey Rotarians with a story of meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
"He was sick and had canceled all appointments except for the president of Rotary International,'' Brown said. "After awhile, his staff held the door open, which was a signal for me to leave. But he didn't listen to them. He kept saying, "Tell me more.' "
Rotarians around the world have contributed $1.2 billion to the polio campaign, Brown said. More than 2 billion children have been immunized, and 136 countries, out of about 195, are free of the disease. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the effort that targets the remaining endemic countries.
"We're in reach of our goal,'' Brown said, "but we still have some work to do."