The term “iconic” is often overused — for celebs, athletes, politicians. But, with regard to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who we just lost to cancer over the Christmas holiday, “iconic” fits like a glove.
His decades of activism to end apartheid in South Africa are well documented. His leadership, activism and strong voice on human rights earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 — and he has received many other awards and forms of recognition in the decades since.
But to our family, Arch’s passing is personal. Tutu encouraged all of his friends and colleagues to address him as “Arch.”
I first met Arch in 1999 when I was doing a White House advance lead for then-First Lady Hillary Clinton at a human rights forum in New York City. Hillary and Arch were both speakers at the forum.
I have had the opportunity to meet so many historical figures, world leaders and celebrities over the course of my career, and so it rarely fazes me. But I was honestly so excited to meet Archbishop Tutu because he had come to literally symbolize the global struggle for human rights and dignity. I found him to be not only impassioned, but wonderfully engaged, warm and yes, very funny.
The next time we met was in 2008, when we were doing advance work for a very focused trip by The Elders to Khartoum and Darfur in Sudan and to Juba in South Sudan. The Elders was initiated by Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson to bring about systemic human rights change and has included world leaders and activists, such as Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, Muhammed Yunus and Graca Machel. My son, Andrew, joined me to advance this mission.
On the first night in Khartoum, Arch called our staff office and said he was having issues with his laptop computer. I dispatched Andrew to Arch’s hotel room to help. Andrew got the problem sorted out quickly but became engaged in a conversation with Arch. My wife, Judy, had been battling ovarian cancer for five years at that point, and Andrew asked Arch if he would pray for her. Arch promised he would and showed Andrew his Bible, where, in the back, he wrote the names of those for whom he prayed daily.
Two days later, after we had returned from Darfur, I found myself in an elevator with Arch, and he showed me where he’d written Judy’s name in his cherished Bible. It brought tears to my eyes — and still does. After the trip ended, Andrew and Arch became email buddies.
When Arch let Andrew know he was coming to Chicago in 2009, they arranged for Arch to have breakfast with Judy and I. Over 90 minutes, we talked about everything from world affairs and human rights to family and dealing with cancer. He was warm, witty, candid and delightful. Our family will never forget that genuine act of friendship and kindness, as just one year later, Judy succumbed to her cancer. Among the first to express condolences was Arch.
And so yes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is deservedly referred to as iconic in his obituaries and in the statements by world leaders commenting on the breadth and depth of his commitment and leadership. But let’s also celebrate Arch for his humanity, warmth and friendship.
In the fractured and fragmented world in which we now live, we all could certainly learn from this wonderful human spirit who demanded accountability and systemic change, but also reached out with a warm smile and helping hand — and opted to build bridges rather than destroy them.
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Rick Jasculca is a founder and chairman of a Chicago-based public affairs firm-and has done global advance work for U.S. presidents and other global leaders.