When he went to bed Tuesday night, Levi B. Watkins was looking forward to flying to North Carolina this week to visit a "close friend and soul mate," just as he'd done so often for years.

His stay at the home of poet Maya Angelou, he was sure, would include what it always did: hours of storytelling and laughter, excellent barbecue and a houseful of happy friends.

On Wednesday morning he received the hard news that would soon reverberate around the world: Ms. Angelou, the internationally renowned author and humanitarian, was dead at 86.

"The word that comes to mind is 'devastated,'" said Watkins, a retired John Hopkins University heart surgeon who knew Ms. Angelou for 40 years. "It'll be a different world without her."

Ms. Angelou, who died of heart failure Wednesday at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., visited Baltimore frequently, friends said, loved it greatly and left a characteristically positive mark on prominent residents past and present.

Oprah Winfrey has written that she first met Ms. Angelou, her eventual mentor and friend, during her early career in Baltimore.

Dr. Watkins, the first black chief resident in cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a longtime proponent of racial diversity at Hopkins, first met Ms. Angelou in his home state of Alabama, where both were visiting a mutual friend, Coretta Scott King, during the mid-1970s.

Dr. Watkins and Ms. Angelou realized they had many friends in common, including civil rights leaders like Andrew Young and the singer Harry Belafonte.

They developed what Dr. Watkins calls "a relationship of fun, spirituality, professionalism and generally helping each other" as they traveled various speaking circuits together.

Over time, Dr. Watkins became Ms. Angelou's personal cardiac specialist, hosting her many times as she came to town for checkups or to speak at civil rights seminars he organized on campus.

During those visits, Dr. Watkins said, he nearly always served as her escort around town.

She was a great cook, he recalled, especially when it came to Southern dishes, and the two were known to frequent her favorite local restaurants, which included the Prime Rib, Tio Pepe and Sabatino's.

They'd also trawl Fell's Point for bargains on antiques, relax together at the Belvedere, or listen to live jazz at the Cat's Eye Pub.

"She's a very social lady. She had lots of friends and loved to party," Dr. Watkins said.

In 2006, film student MK Asantewas just getting started on a movie about the history of the holiday Kwanzaa. As a long shot, he tracked down a phone number for Ms. Angelou's representatives and called to see if she'd consider narrating.

Mr. Asante, now a professor at Morgan State University and a celebrated author and filmmaker, was stunned to hear Ms. Angelou pick up the phone — and even more stunned to learn she owned a book of poetry he'd published.

She took the job of narrating "The Black Candle." Asante spent about two years traveling back and forth to Winston-Salem to write with Ms. Angelou and work on the project. The film came out in 2008.

"She embodies the best of who we are, you know?" Asante said. "As a country, as African-Americans, as poets, as writers, thinkers, humanitarians. The best of humanity. She represents so much. And she was an amazing poet."

Ms. Angelou rose to prominence in 1969, when her landmark memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," etched an unforgettable portrait of life growing up in the racially oppressive Jim Crow South.

The book made her one of the first female African-American authors to gain a broad general readership, and Ms. Angelou turned her celebrity into a platform for spreading a message of peace, justice and tolerance that included but was not limited to the subject of civil rights in the United States.