15 Years Ago
For the second time in three weeks, this column reports a presidential visit to the school. This one occurred almost exactly a century later than Roosevelt’s visit.
From The Bridge, [vol. XXXIV], no. 1, p. 3; October 11, 2002.
Mbeki Pays a Visit
It was a hot day when the leaders of the NMH community welcomed Thabo Mbeki, President of the Republic of South Africa to the school. On Friday, September 13, security was high, complete with helicopters circling overhead and uniformed security guards patrolling the grounds around Ford Cottage, where the President was scheduled to arrive later that afternoon. Medical personnel and an ambulance were on hand. The NMH orchestra tuned up, their notes mingling with those of the NMH Singers under the direction of Sherrill Blodget, interim director of the choral and vocal program. Rehearsing a South African freedom song, “Singabahambayo,” Blodget and her students swayed in time to the music. Blodget said the song signifies coming together, even under difficult times and conditions, with hope and faith.
“It feels pretty good to know the School is proud of us,” said Kyler Chavez ’05 of the NMH Singers, “to trust us enough to do something so fragile.”
Trustees and heads of departments were in attendance, including head of the music department, Ron Smith. “I’m thankful this is going to happen,” Smith said, “They’re really allowing the whole school to get involved and know what it means.”
Members of the NMH honor guard lined up along the path leading to Ford Cottage, a little before 1:00 in the afternoon. Excitement and anticipation seemed to run high, and at 1:15 people were still in good spirits.
Owen Barron ’06, a member of Randy Stevens’ Comparative Politics class, said, “I think just a chance to meet someone who’s done so much for other people is a really special thing.”
“It’s great because he’s the most important visitor we’ve ever had,” said peer mediator Michael Skillicorn ’04.
By 1:25, anticipation was still high, but the mood was growing more tense as Mr. Mbeki still did not make an appearance.
Khadija Ali ’03 student leader of South Crossley, described the vision of the president changing in the collective imagination of the group. “I think we’re very excited and anxious.” said Ali, “He’s almost taken a different form.”
Finally, at 1:27, a police cruiser approached, followed by black sedans, a van, and another police car. After a few moments, President Mbeki could be seen surrounded by both school and political officials, including the South African ambassador to the United States, Shiela Sisulu. Greetings, handshakes and kisses were exchanged.
Students Whitney Walters and Tumi Sisulu gave the President flowers. He then started jovially up the path, smiling and laughing. At a slow pace necessitated by the throng of students eager to shake hands with a world leader, he proceeded up the path while security officials kept a vigilant watch. After about five minutes of solid handshaking and warm greetings, the World Music Combo and NMH Singers performed as the President sang along.
Later, the President addressed the entire school in the Auditorium. His speech focused mainly on the value of education, the history of the ANC, Pixley Ka Isaka Seme’s (class of 1902) role in its founding, and thanking the school for its part in Seme’s education. The President spoke little about current world issues, just briefly touching on the subject near the end of his speech.
“We’ve got to end the situation of military coups and military dictatorships,” said Mbeki, “to punish poverty, punish hunger.”
Student reactions to the speech were mixed. “I was glad the speech was personalized to our school’s history, but I was hoping for more discussion of world issues,” said Auby Koehler ’03.
As for official reactions, head of school Richard Mueller was delighted with the speech and the student body’s reaction to it.
“For all of us, being able to host Thabo Mbeki, President of the Republic of South Africa, and his wife, was thrilling,” said Mueller in a statement. “I was proud of the enthusiastic response of our students and community. President and Mrs. Mbeki certainly felt our warm welcome.”
Dean of student life Randy Stevens had a similar reaction. “I think he really wanted to express gratitude to the school,” said Stevens. “We’re still the same school Pixley graduated from.