Janesville women recall Maya Angelou's visit to UW-Rock County

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, June 2, 2014

JANESVILLE—Many consider poet, author and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou a literary giant.

But those who heard her speak in Janesville almost 30 years ago also recall her passion as a teacher.

“The thing I remember most clearly is how much time she spent with students after her talk,” said Linda Reinhardt, UW-Rock County associate professor of psychology. “She was so gracious to the young people in the audience. She encouraged them to get an education.”

Reinhardt was among 300 who gave Angelou a standing ovation after she appeared at UW-Rock County in February 1985.

Angelou died May 28 at the age of 86. Many who saw her will remember her humility.

UW-Rock County's fine arts committee asked Angelou to speak on campus. Some worried about inviting a world-famous author and poet.

“We were a little in awe of her,” Reinhardt said.

At the time, Angelou was the author of eight bestsellers, including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

But the cultural pioneer was no snob. She enthusiastically reached out to students.

“Being an educator was important to her,” Reinhardt said. “We were relieved at how great she was with the audience and how she spent time with people after her speech.”

Reinhardt does not remember the poetry of Langston Hughes, which Angelou read on stage. Nor does she recall Angelou's soft-spoken encouragement to read the literature of many cultures.

But she clearly remembers Angelou's grace.

“She had such a presence,” Reinhardt said. “She had such a beautiful way of expressing herself in that deep voice.”

When Reinhardt heard that Angelou had died, she was amazed to think almost 30 years have passed since her memorable visit.

“We lost a great soul who inspired people all over the world,” Reinhardt said. “I think how fortunate I was to meet her and to remember her impact.”

Carolyn Brandeen of Janesville also heard Angelou speak. Brandeen was part of an informal group with an interest in women's history.

“We encouraged the fine arts committee to bring her to campus,” Brandeen said. “We were delighted when we heard she was coming.”

In the mid-1980s, interest in women's history and black history “was just bubbling to the surface,” Brandeen explained.

She called Angelou's demeanor on stage like that of “an aunt or mother or sage, who told students, 'You have a library here. Use it,'” Brandeen said. “She challenged students to keep learning.”

Brandeen was director of continuing education on campus at the time.

After Angelou's visit, she followed the writer's life. Brandeen listened intently in 1993 when Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton's first inauguration. More recently, she was delighted that Angelou was a professor at North Carolina's Wake Forest University at the time of her death.

“To think that she was ending her life still connected to an academic place,” Brandeen said.

She is thankful for her encounter with the legendary poet.

“To brush up against her greatness was a delight,” Brandeen said. “When I heard that she died, my first thought was: a life well lived. Isn't that what we all want?”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com


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