I first saw Nelson Mandela during the summer of 1990, while working as a vacation-relief desk assistant for ABC News in New York City. The former South African president and freedom fighter was feted with a ticker-tape parade the length of Broadway. This was his first visit to the United States after his release from prison. ABC’s Ted Koppel interviewed him in front of a large studio audience for a special edition of Nightline, and I witnessed it all from my perch in the newsroom where my assignment was to answer phones, make copies and send faxes. I watched as my colleagues had the opportunity to interact firsthand with one of the greatest men of our time. The experience inspired me to become a journalist.
Two years later, now with a real job as a booker for NBC’s Today, I was told to show up at one of the big Eastside hotels for an early morning live shot. The call was for 4:30 a.m., and we were doing a morning-show round robin: NBC, ABC, and CBS. Mandela was our guest. He was in New York for the annual meeting of the United Nations.
Mandela was already awake when we arrived. A combination of jet lag and years in prison, he told us, meant he did not need much sleep, even in his 70s. The first thing I noticed was how old he seemed. He moved slowly, but had a regal bearing. He took his time to introduce himself to our crew. He wanted to know our backgrounds, if any of us had traveled to Africa, and what we thought of the Arkansas Governor running against President Bush.
I was struck by how simultaneously commanding and gentle he was. Like he had a core of steel, but at the same time could remove a splinter from his grandkid’s toe. I also remember that he had huge ankles, and because he said it was sometimes hard for him to find shoes that would fit properly — consequences of time in prison no doubt — he preferred to conduct this particular interview with Bryant Gumbel in slippers.
Fast forward 23 years to December 2013. Nelson Mandela had died on December 5, and I was in Johannesburg to cover his funeral. By luck we got a pass that allowed us into his house. We signed the official guest book, smelled the flowers, and read many of the greetings that had poured in from around the world. We felt we were in the home of a great man and woman — his wife Graca Machel’s presence was everywhere including a huge picture of both of them over the grand piano.
Mandela’s house was both formal and comfortable. In addition to the living room with all the hard furniture that many people never use, there was another more casual space — just an open room with chairs. It wasn’t clear whether this was installed just for the visiting mourners, but it was where the family was ensconced.
My visit to the house was an unbelievable and completely unplanned moment. Through it I stumbled into the home of an icon. I was greeted and welcomed by his family as if I was also an old friend. That amazing outpouring of grace was emblematic of Nelson Mandela. Despite his greatness he was also plain, and I felt that very clearly on that day. It is the most vivid memory I have from my little time in his company and in his home.