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Maya Angelou's death brings forth memories, tributes from Md. friends

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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.

After Ms. Angelou gained fame, Dr. Watkins said, she tended to avoid politics unless it was on a national level. Her work was recognized around the globe.

But her work also made an indelible mark in Maryland. Leslie King-Hammond, board chairwoman of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History, crossed paths with Ms. Angelou on the lecture circuit and watched her in a kind of awe.

"She came out of the struggles of her own life, which were powerful and palpable and human, and taught a generation of us how to use our voices and intellects and find our own inner beauty," Ms. King-Hammond said. "Her passing is a moment of real reflection."

Larry Gibson, the University of Maryland law professor who chaired Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign in Maryland, said he met Ms. Angelou several times at the White House during the early 1990s.

Like many who met Ms. Angelou, who had a six-foot frame and a booming laugh, Mr. Gibson was left with lasting impressions.

"She was very polite and pleasant, and always took part in the conversation right in front of her, but her mind always seemed to be functioning on a second track," Mr. Gibson said. "Lucky for us mere mortals, she had a gift for translating complicated ideas into delightfully simple language."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who met Ms. Angelou on several occasions, issued a statement that quoted from her poem "When Great Trees Fall:"

And when great souls die,

after a period of peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly.

"The passing of Dr. Angelou is the death of a truly great soul," the governor wrote.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also issued a statement.

"When I think of Dr. Maya Angelou, one word summarizes her total existence — phenomenal," she wrote.

Friends say Ms. Angelou modeled her beliefs with special vividness in what might otherwise have seemed ordinary circumstances.

Dr. Watkins witnessed many such situations as he visited her place and she returned the favor.

In 2006, he said, she appeared at the Lyric Opera to sing onstage with the R&B group Ashford and Simpson, but she was unable to make a post-concert reception for health reasons. Still, he said, she stayed until she had spoken to every fan who wanted to talk.

Then Baltimoreans mobbed her like a rock star as she climbed into a limo.

Dr. Watkins, who founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Program at Hopkins, said she was one of only two speakers he has invited twice. She packed the place both times, he said, most recently in 2007.

Her inner circle included black, white, gay, transgender and Native American people, Dr. Watkins said, and if you used derogatory stereotypes of any kind, "she'd have her staff escort you out the door."

Dr. Watkins said his friend and patient had been in ill health for years, so her death didn't shock him; it's just that he'd spoken to her the day before — about the recent unveiling of her portrait at the Smithsonian in Washington and about his pending visit.

He and Mr. Asante were still digesting the news of her death Wednesday — and trying to take it as she would have liked.

Once, Mr. Asante recalled, she told him that charisma is "when you walk into the room with everything beautiful ever said to you, with anyone that ever laid a positive hand on you."

He said he hoped to "take her with me" from here on out. But he also wanted to keep in mind an exhortation that he said was fundamental to Ms. Angelou.

"She'd want everyone she loved to be working," he said. "'Get back to work!' That's her thing, because there's a lot to do in the community and everywhere."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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