Skip to Main Content

My Moment with Maya Angelou

Fighting a cold before her historic appearance at the Clinton Inauguration, Maya Angelou needed some tea…

by Marian Heard

I first met Maya Angelou over tea. But not in the way you might expect.

My husband and I were staying at the same hotel as she was for Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration, back in January of 1993. She was fighting a cold—and getting ready to deliver that amazing poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”—and she came into the lounge looking for a cup of hot tea.

I recognized her right away, and I wondered if she (or the associate who accompanied her) should order room service as all the food and beverages had been put away. But then Maya Angelou also said—in that incredible voice (which seemed even deeper than normal)—that she had to get to bed, and as if reading my thoughts, said she didn’t have time to wait for room service!

My husband and I were reading the Washington Post and had in front of us two large pots of hot water, a dish of lemons and packets of honey. The lounge staff was not around, so I offered my pot of hot water, lemon and honey to her.  She retrieved a tea bag, sat down near us, and comfortably sipped her tea.

I did not engage her in conversation, quite frankly, not wanting her to tax that voice any more than necessary. She was a tall woman and the chair she occupied did not allow her to rest her head, so she simply closed her eyes. She finished her tea, thanked us again, and left within about a half an hour.

Within a few months, I had the pleasure of being with her again when she was the keynote speaker at the “Make a Difference Day” program for the Points of Light Foundation and USA TODAY WEEKEND. Both she and the same colleague who had been with her in Washington recognized me. That said, all of the board members had been given instructions to not speak to her prior to her keynote speech. A wonderful moment occurred, however, when the person traveling with her came over to me, and we moved to the quiet area where Maya Angelou was waiting, and I had a very precious conversation with this extraordinary woman.

I commented that her poem at the Inauguration had been profound, and I felt particularly proud that her voice was strong and clear. She was so gracious and chimed in with a hearty laugh and said it was because of the tea she had “bummed” from me!

I know these are small things—a woman fighting a cold, some hot tea, a gracious moment, and a shared laugh. But every time I crossed paths with Maya Angelou, I came away with a spectacular memory. In this particular speech at the Conference in 2006, she urged attendees to “let their light shine bright.” And it strikes me that Maya Angelou’s power was in living every moment with her light shining. Even when it came to a cup of tea. As someone else very wise once noted, there are no small gestures; it’s our greatness that makes them shine.

Marian Heard Massachusetts Conference for Women board member Marian L. Heard is the president and chief executive officer of Oxen Hill Partners, a Boston-based company specializing in leadership development programs and brand enhancement strategies. She retired as the president and CEO of the Boston United Way (the #1 Major Gifts United Way in the country) and as the chief executive officer of the United Ways of New England.

She is the founding president and chief executive officer of the Points of Light Foundation, which was formed to perpetuate President George Bush’s (#41) call for voluntary service to address the serious social problems in America. She remains a board member and has served two terms as the national board chair. She has had the rare privilege of working with the last six United States Presidents on volunteer and/or youth development projects and also led a strategic planning meeting at Camp David.