With the passing of Desmond Tutu, the world has lost its greatest moral leader.
If there was one authentically ideal human being, a person whom I could truly call my hero, it was him.
While others have worked much more closely with him than I did, of course, it is the one of the great joys of my life to have been worthy of his support and friendship.
When Brent Quinn and I were first creating The Three Amigos campaign to stop the then rapidly spreading pandemic of HIV/AIDS, I made a bold step to reach out to Tutu to ask for his support. I tracked him down in Florida. He immediately agreed, a mark of his generosity to a complete stranger.
Not only was he a very well-known activist on HIV/AIDS, he was a South African and a religious leader. I needed all three personas.
South Africa was leading the world in HIV positive people with over 3 million infected, yet it was led by a President who seemed inert to the suffering of his people. So we needed to be on the South African national broadcasting system (the SABC) but any political interference could have stopped us immediately.
Our campaign featured three funny animated condoms, which was bound to draw condemnation and resistance from another religious leader then sitting in the Vatican.
Tutu wrote an open letter urging broadcasters around the world to play The Three Amigos. I’m revealing now that he also privately wrote over 80 letters to world leaders to gain support for the campaign. They were invaluable in propelling the campaign forward, ultimately being used in over 150 countries in 45 languages.
That began a long history of support, which I received next in the Buzz and Bite campaign to prevent malaria. Sometimes it wasn’t much more than a two-word e-mail saying, “well done dear friend” or “splendid work”. Once it was a long note apologizing for having to miss a meeting.
Part of the appeal of these campaigns must have been that we used humor to make a serious point. Tutu was the funniest man I ever met. It was his approach to life, to be a joyful person.
When we got profiled on the influential right-wing American radio show by commenter Rush Limbaugh, who somehow managed to drag the then Presidential candidate John Kerry and “Clinton” (he didn’t say which) into his commentary, I wrote to him apologizing if I had caused him any embarrassment. He replied with his usual grace and humor, telling me to “put on your tin hat and get back in the trenches”. As usual, he signed his e-mail “The Arch”.
I wonder if he knew how much his support meant to me or to the thousands other people he touched.
Tutu once said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be humans together”. He personified that creed; he revelled in it; and he showed me and countless others what it really meant.
I marvel that such a man walked this earth.