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Cheyney University Mourns the Loss of Poet Laureate Maya Angelou

May 28, 2014

Dr. Maya Angelou's smile lit up the stage when she spoke at Cheyney University in 2012 to benefit the Keystone Honors Academy.  She will be greatly missed.

Photo by Stan Banks Photography

Dr. Maya Angelou's smile lit up the stage when she spoke at Cheyney University in 2012 to benefit the Keystone Honors Academy. She will be greatly missed. Photo by Stan Banks Photography

The news appears to have hit everyone like a brick.  Although the Cheyney University community knew that Maya Angelou's health was failing, word of her death caught most by surprise.

“This morning I heard about the death of an extraordinary American, an international icon, Dr. Maya Angelou," remarked CU President Dr. Michelle R. Howard-Vital. "I was saddened but buoyed by the thoughts of her extraordinary contributions to humanity since 1928."

The 86-year-old author, poet, and teacher died at her North Carolina home. She leaves behind an incredible legacy: besides her writings, Angelou was a painter, actress, singer, dancer, activist and mesmerizing speaker.

Dr. Vital had the pleasure of being in Dr. Angelou's presence twice--once in Angelou's Winston-Salem home--the other time came two years ago when Cheyney's Keystone Honors Academy hosted her for a fundraiser benefitting scholars. Annually, the Academy provides full college scholarships for 150 gifted students.  Because of those students, Angelou told the Cheyney audience in April 2012 when she came to campus, she defied doctors orders and did the event anyway at the nation's first institution of higher learning for African Americans. The packed house was a powerful indication of just how much one person can unite people of all ages, races, religious beliefs and backgrounds.

"We had to turn away guests," Dr. Vital recalled. "Her time at Cheyney University was a gift to us all."

"We send our heartfelt condolences to her family, and to all those who loved her across the globe," said Dr. Tara Kent, Dean of the Keystone Honors Academy, who coordinated Angelou's visit to Cheyney. "Together, we are a community in mourning for the loss of this phenomenal woman who gave us so much. Her intellect, prose and accomplishments have been an inspiration to countless others, and she was equally adored for her grace, eloquence and charm. It was such a tremendous honor to have met Dr. Angelou on the Cheyney University campus in 2012, and we all cherish the time she shared with us, in spite of her illness. Her lecture took the form of poetry, and she empowered us throughout the night- reminding our students of their greatness and using the refrain: “You are rainbows in the clouds.” She told us that she had visited our campus to revitalize us, and she did just that, and more. It was a most memorable and moving occasion, one that has left a lasting and positive impression for all of us who were fortunate enough to have been in her presence. I am so pleased that our students had the opportunity to meet such an extraordinary and beautiful human being as Dr. Maya Angelou. She will truly be missed. But, it is encouraging to realize that through her literature, Dr. Angelou’s words will continue to touch, inspire, uplift and revitalize future generations, young and old, for decades to come."

Angelou's first book, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," was an autobiography that told how she was raped at the age of seven by her mother's boyfriend and became an un-wed mother as a teenager. The high school dropout helped support her son by performing in the arts.  She went on to become a world-renowned writer and a college professor. In 1993, at the request of President Bill Clinton, Angelou composed the poem “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which she read at his inauguration. She was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the nation's highest civilian honor. 

Dr. Angelou taught for years at Wake Forest University.  Wake Forest President, Nathan O. Hatch, said in a statement ""Maya Angelou has been a towering figure -- at Wake Forest and in American culture. She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation. We will miss her lyrical voice and always keen insights."

Angelou's agent, Helen Brann, told ABC News that she'd just spoken to Angelou and that she was doing fine. "She'd been very frail and had heart problems, but she was going strong, finishing a new book. Her spirit was indomitable," Brann said.

Just last week, Major League Baseball announced that Angelou would not attend its 2014 Beacon Awards Luncheon, where she was to be honored, due to health concerns. She had also recently canceled an event in Arkansas reportedly for health reasons that sent her to the hospital.

"Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension," said Angelou's son, Guy Johnson, in a statement. "She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love." 

"That's a voice that will be sorely missed," said Pat Walker, CU Recreation Instructor and Director of Intramurals, when she learned of the news. She also heard Angelou when she came to Cheyney in 2012 and wished that her daughter could have heard first-hand the wisdom that came from her lips.

Writer and Aspiring Poet Kristan Justice, Miss Cheyney 2014-2015, was saddened by Angelou's death. The rising senior who is double majoring in Communications and Psychology with a concentration in Public Relations says "It's an unfortunate loss to the African American community in the area of activism and the arts. I believe that she influenced a generation of young women to feel empowered about themselves and, for me embarking on a new role as Miss Cheyney, the message of being a phenomenal woman is one that will live on forever and one that inspires all women to live out their queenship."

Maya Angelou posted her last tweet five days ago.  As usual, it was full of wisdom. "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God."