WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Maya Angelou liked to say that people will forget what you said or did in your life, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Former President Bill Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey said Saturday they were among the millions touched by Angelou's wisdom when they needed help to rise.
Family and friends, both famous and anonymous, gathered Saturday to remember one of the 20th century's most famous African-American writers. Amid tears, laughter and gospel singing, they met at Wake Forest University, where she taught for 32 years though she never graduated from college. Dr. Angelou, as she liked to be addressed out of respect for all the honorary degrees she received, died May 28 at age 86.
Hers was a remarkable life, linking worlds of civil rights, poetry, acting and teaching — those present recalled at the two-hour-long tribute.
"We could just all be up here talking about how Maya Angelou represented a big piece of American history. And triumphed over adversity. And proved how dumb racism is," Clinton said at the private memorial service. "But her great gift in her action-packed life was she was always paying attention. And from the time she starting writing her books and her poetry, what she was basically doing was calling our attention to the things she'd been paying attention to. And she did it with a clarity and power that will wash over people as long as there is a written and spoken language."
The words of the indomitable woman, who Clinton said seemed to pack five lifetimes into one, changed a little black girl on the south side of Chicago whose Malibu Barbie doll was the standard of female perfection.
"Her voice lifted me right out of my own little head," Obama told those gathered in the wooden pews of the main campus chapel. A large photo of her husband awarding Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 hung from the campus chapel's oak wall.
Winfrey said the close and constant friend she met before becoming a talk show host could shake her out of bouts of self-doubt. Angelou taught her to look beyond trouble and spot the rainbow in the clouds, Winfrey said.
"Maya Angelou is the greatest woman I have ever known," Winfrey said, then almost sobbing: "She was my anchor. So it's hard to describe to you what it means when your anchor shifts."