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Originally published December 5, 2013 at 9:25 PM | Page modified December 5, 2013 at 11:25 PM

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Mandela’s aura stretched all the way to Seattle

Three people with Seattle ties share remembrances of Nelson Mandela.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Two of them got to meet Nelson Mandela when he visited Seattle on Dec. 10, 1999.

They then were students at Seattle University.

It wasn’t so much the words Mandela spoke that they clearly remember, but simply his quiet magnetism.

The subsequent careers of Frank So, now 34, and Peter Koski, now 35, reflect how Mandela impacted their lives.

The third is an assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington. Trevor Branch was raised in South Africa, and the closest he came to meeting Mandela was when the great man walked down to have tea with his family’s next-door neighbors.

Branch missed him by five minutes.

But tweeting about Mandela’s death, Branch wrote, “I feel like the core has been ripped out of my heart,” and then he composed an emotional post on his Facebook page.

Frank So was student-body president at Seattle University and was backstage with Mandela before he went to speak with gathered college and high-school students.

He remembers the sheer aura of Mandela.

“There was this tranquillity about him,” remembers So. “At the time I was, what, 20, and Mandela had spent 27 years in prison, more than my entire lifetime.”

He remembers Mandela telling the students, “Fear is something you choose.”

So spoke by phone Thursday from Caracas, Venezuela, where he works for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Previously he has worked in such places as the Congo, Rwanda and Haiti after its earthquake, all in aid-related work.

“I didn’t pick the easiest places. Mandela inspired me,” he says.

Peter Koski is deputy chief in the public-integrity section of the criminal division at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

“It’s impossible not to be influenced by Nelson Mandela,” he says.

Koski shook Mandela’s hand at the college event.

“I got to experience his humanity in the flesh, see his face, see the scars on his face ... just the humanity in his eyes and his smile,” says Koski. “Courage and forgiveness, those are the two qualities I remember.”

And so now, Koski prosecutes abuses of power and also travels to Africa to help governments there fight corruption.

Contacted Thursday, Koski emailed about meeting Mandela, “ ... that experience came rushing back to me this evening when I heard the news. In fact, I’ve reflected on it often over the years.”

On the phone, he added, “I feel like Nelson Mandela is one of the few men in human history whose life exceeds his legend.”

Then there is the emotional post by Trevor Branch, the UW professor, printed with his permission:

“Mandela has passed away. As the tears well up (men don’t cry do they?), I reflect on why we live. He led a life that changed more than a country. He changed the world. ...”

“I stood in line in 1994 to cast my vote in the first free elections in South African history. I waited for hours. The line stretched for a mile or more full of every race.

“Racism is far from over. But South Africa is dramatically changed for the better because of Mandela. Who else could emerge from 27 years of prison free of rancor and preaching reconciliation?

“Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we privileged whites learned just a small fraction more about the terrible atrocities perpetrated under apartheid. We benefited.

“Mandela is saintlike not because he was without sin, but because he never sought the vengeance that he rightfully could have. He preached tolerance, togetherness, ubuntu (the quality of compassion), and made a society that survives and thrives on diversity. ...”

“Our task is not done. We all need to follow his example and build a better world.

“But right now, I need to mourn, and yes, cry, as my heart feels like it has been ripped out.”

News researcher Gene Balk contributed. Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com



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