In light of tomorrow's memorial service for Dr. Maya Angelou at Wake Forest University, I wanted to share a personal experience I had with her a decade ago that exemplified her irrepressible drive and indomitable spirit. At the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, Maya Angelou gave a speech that inspired all, but startled at least a few, in particular the fellow in charge of the teleprompter. That night I had the best seat in the house and witnessed what only a handful of people did. I dubbed it the best speech never given. Let me explain.
Every four years the two national political conventions require a degree of orchestration and logistical mastery that may only be matched by the invasion of Normandy in 1944. For four days, an endless parade of speakers are rehearsed, escorted through a maze of security, deposited in a make-up room, then a green room to soothe nerves, and then positioned in a line of other speakers awaiting their turn for their abbreviated performances before not only a rousing crowd but an enormous worldwide viewership. Afterwards they are escorted offstage, wind their way through the labyrinth backstage and out into the chaos of the arena to find their way to their next destination. It is a marvel of coordination.
The foot soldiers in charge of this orchestration are known as speaker-trackers, individuals who have the responsibility for essentially handling certain individuals for days to ensure that they are where they are supposed to be and then deposited where they are supposed to be. I have been involved in eight Democratic national conventions since 1976 and for the past four have been a speaker-tracker. For my money it is the best gig in the hall.
In 2004, among the many groups and individuals I was responsible for over the four days, including the Swift Boat crew, I was responsible for Maya Angelou. She had difficulty getting around at that point and needed the help of a cane. We had gone through teleprompter rehearsal the day before she was to deliver her speech and while she carefully and diligently parsed through the speech that had been prepared for her, everything appeared to be in order and she signed off on the final version of the speech that was put into the teleprompter.
My job was to be with her on stage, behind the wall carrying the DNC logo, and should there be a problem with the teleprompter I would professionally walk to the podium with a copy of the speech and put it in front of her, with the already spoken lines scratched through to indicate where to pick up the speech.
It had already been a trying hour or so as I would learn that she was deathly afraid of elevators and it necessitated a Plan B route from the parking garage underneath Fleet Center up to the main concourse. Given her limited ability to walk great distances and mount stairs, this posed a problem that required quick recalibration. I managed to get her and her entourage up to the main concourse but literally halfway around the arena from the backstage entrance. I told them to stay put and rushed around the concourse in search of a wheelchair. I found one, returned to where they were and we made our way backstage.
Nerves were soothed while we sat in the Green Room backstage until it was time to get in the cue of speakers who would be shuffled on- and offstage like cars in an assembly line. When her time came, she gracefully walked on stage, grabbed the podium and reached into her coat to draw out a document that we soon realized was a speech she had prepared herself. Unbeknownst to the teleprompter operator, she forcefully delivered her words, the words she had written.
The poor fellow was frantic. As she read her words he frantically scrolled through the teleprompter searching for where those words were in the speech he had. From the stage the scene looked like this: a large arena darkened with a large teleprompter screen situated halfway back into the arena and words dancing wildly up and down as the operator did his very best to locate where she was in the speech.
Finally after several minutes I went over to him and apprised him that he would not find it in the teleprompter, it only existed in her version of the speech which only she was privy to. In the heat of the moment one can only imagine the angst and horror the poor chap was experiencing. From my vantage point the surreal picture of a wildly gyrating teleprompter, which you could only see from our vantage point on stage, juxtaposed against the serenity and power with which she delivered her words was really quite hilarious. She pulled it off without a hitch. She finished her speech, turned and motioned for me to help her offstage and away we walked, arm in arm.
I took great care to get her to her next destination, a suite somewhere a half a football field away, sat down with her and asked her about the speech. She simply said she was not satisfied with the speech that she had rehearsed and decided to do her own. She struck me as that way, always doing things on her own terms.
I asked her if she would sign the speech she was supposed to deliver, and she graciously did and proceeded to write a short letter to my two sons, at that time aged 12 and 10. During our short time together that week we had spent considerable time discussing the fact that I was a single father raising two sons and she was intensely interested in my daily travails as a parent, the most important job in the world.
Well, Ms. Angelou, your travails are now over and you can rest in peace and tackle whatever the afterlife has in store for you. I am sure there are no teleprompters in heaven but you did not have a need for them here on Earth so I am sure you are well prepared. Thank you for your time here and thanks for the great story.