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Maya Angelou delivered the convocation address to the class of 1993 and received an honorary doctorate. From left: Angelou, University President William Atchley, and Dr. Larry Meredith.

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Pacific remembers Maya Angelou

Students, staff, faculty and alumni reflect on the legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou, who delivered an unforgettable convocation address to the University of the Pacific Class of 1993 on Commencement weekend. The renowned author, artist and activist passed away this week at age 86.
Ann MazzaferroMay 28, 2014

When you've worked at University of the Pacific for 25 years, the days can slide into months and years; but some moments stand out in your memory, such as the moment you very nearly stumble into one of the most renowned poets, authors, and activists that the United States ever produced.

"We all were in awe of her - Maya Angelou was a tall woman with a deep voice, and she made you feel very comfortable around her," says Kitty Gilbert, who helped conduct commencement ceremonies at University of the Pacific in 1993, when Dr. Angelou delivered the convocation address.

Angelou, who died May 28, had deep roots in the Stockton community. She lived here briefly in her early life, and her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, settled in Stockton, becoming a well-known and much-loved figure in the community. Baxter Park, just a few miles from Pacific's campus in Stockton, is named in her honor.

Though they only met for a few moments, Angelou's impact on Gilbert was lasting.

"My short time being in her presence will always be with me," Gilbert said. "I've never met a more gracious, down-to-earth person."

In her storied life, Angelou wrote seven autobiographies, three books of essays, many books of poetry, and several theatrical plays and film screenplays. She was recognized for her work as an artist with nominations for Tony awards and Grammys; her poetry earned her the National Medal of the Arts, the Lincoln Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She was also awarded over 30 honorary doctorates, including one from Pacific in 1993. As she spoke at Knoles Lawn, the mood in the crowd went from excited to electric.

"She brought an immense embodied spirit to the stage," remembered Diane Borden, professor emeritus of English. "Her voice was rich and embracing.  Her body swayed with the lyrical rhythms of her voice and words.  The audience knew this was a goddess.  Everyone cheered, stood, and rocked with her humor, wisdom and grace.  It was the best commencement at Pacific for all time in the 40 years I attended."

Students and staff who heard the speech over 20 years ago came together on the University's Facebook page to share their memories of that remarkable morning.

"She delivered an impeccable and thought-provoking commencement speech that changed my perception of living life," wrote Sylarz Trader '93. "What matters most is in this life time -- every tiny little thing we do each day, for our mind and spirit and to those around us. Life is so precious -- live it wisely, live it well. I am saddened to know that Dr. Maya is no longer with us, but her idealistic teaching lives on forever."

Posted former staff member Cathy Martinez, who worked in student advising at the time: "I did not meet her but I remember that event as one of the most powerful during my 25 years at Pacific," she wrote.  " ... I don't remember many of the specific words of her short speech but I do remember, all these years later, the high level of emotion that was palpable as we all stood in ovation at the end. I spent the rest of that evening enveloped in a sense of awe because of that encounter with this woman of grace, power and love."

“It’s given to us to live but once”

When Dr. Maya Angelou took the stage on Knoles Lawn at convocation in 1993, the crowd experienced eight minutes that they would not soon forget. Listen to this newly-released online audio of Angelou's classic convocation address, one of the most memorable speeches given in Pacific's history. more

It wasn't just Angelou's magnificent speech that left a lasting impression on the Pacific community; it was the kindness, generosity and warmth that she brought to every aspect of her life. Bernie Kramer, who helped plan the commencement and convocation ceremonies, clearly remembered the energy Angelou's visit brought to campus.

"She was so gracious, and so kind," Kramer said. "It was one of the largest convocation addresses we have ever had - there wasn't a space left to stand on Knoles Lawn, from the business school to Burns Tower. It was a day I will never forget."

Larry Meredith, professor emeritus of religious and classical studies, vividly recalled spending time with Angelou before commencement began. Just a few minutes before Angelou delivered her address, she walked with Meredith into what is now the provost's office, where ten administrators, assistants, and faculty members were waiting for the ceremony to begin. Meredith said that Angelou sat with the assembled guests and asked each of them their name, title, and role in the day's festivities. As it was time for Angelou to join the waiting presidential procession, she thanked guests by name and title, said that it had been a pleasure to meet them, and wished them well.

Later, as he was driving Angelou to her next speaking engagement, Meredith remarked how extraordinary it was that she had been able to remember the names and titles of people that she met only briefly, and would most likely not meet again.

"Maya thought for a moment, then she said, 'Well, you know, I learned a long time ago that, when I meet someone, I know enough of this life to know that that may be the last face I ever see,'" Meredith said. "Maya said, 'When I go, I want to be able to remember that last person I saw, I want to be able to say that I met that person, and that I really knew them, and they were important to me.'"

Although the graduates from the class of 1993 are now scattered across the world, pursuing varied lives and careers, Angelou's words still resonate, as relevant now as they were 21 years ago. She ended her speech with the following:

"I ask you, please men and women who are graduating now, please - remember that since life is our most precious gift, and since, as far as we can be absolutely certain, it is given to us to live but once, let us so live we will not endure decades of useless virtue and inertia and timidity and ignorance, and in our last days, we should be able to say: All my conscious life and energies have been dedicated to the most noble cause in the world: the liberation of the human mind and spirit, beginning with my own."

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