12/09/2013 01:26 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

When I Met Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela had been released from prison only a short time ago, and here he was, standing under a white tent on the banks of the Charles River in Boston, greeting guests who had been invited for a celebratory lunch by Senator Ted Kennedy.

I, as governor at the time, was on the guest list. I did not know what to expect. What kind of a man would step out into the sunlight after having spent 27 years of his life in the shadows of prison walls. His crime? Trying to free his country from the painful bonds of apartheid, which had determined by law that some human beings were less human than others. As he came closer, I was surprised that he was taller than I had expected. Straight backed, graceful and, yes -- elegant in his dark suit. His presence was framed by an aura of majesty. He approached like a king, but not like a king who looked down on his subjects. Rather, he made direct and lingering eye contact with me. He was truly delighted to meet me -- as if I -- not he -- were a person of importance. I made no effort to release his firm grip on my hand.

I was too dazed to remember what I said. I do remember what I felt -- as if I had been blessed. What was it about this man that makes him the obvious, and for many of us, the only hero of our time? He could not have registered his inner peace with himself, and the world, if he had not had the capacity to transform his own wretched anger into loving forgiveness.

He did not start out that way. He had been a fighter, he had been angry, even considered dangerous, so much so that the United States had kept him at a careful distance.

On one level, he was saintly. On another, he was practical. He wanted to create harmony and knew that this was the only way to build a free and equal South Africa. Not for him an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. He dropped the urge for retribution and revenge on the floor of his prison cell on Robben Island, closed the door, and never picked it up again. Instead, he called for reconciliation to heal his deeply wounded country. And by and large, he succeeded.

The best way to mourn Mandela is not to weep for his loss, but to celebrate his gifts by becoming a little bit -- just a little bit -- like him. If the leaders of the world -- in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and even in our country, could find in their souls the capacity for forgiveness , the ability to create harmony, the belief in social justice, Nelson Mandela, would give them their blessing and his memory would live on forever.