Annan, in May visit, unveils bust, memories

By Zac Farber

Kofi Annan ’61 came to campus on May 20 to unveil a bronze bust and speak to students about his life and experiences in the United Nations. He answered pre-screened questions from students in the campus center lecture hall and attended a luncheon with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members, including Walter Mondale ’50, his wife, Joan, and former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer.It was the first visit since spring 2006 for the former U.N. Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whom a blushing Laurie Hamre, the vice president for student affairs, told, “It’s no secret that you are probably our favorite alum.”

“I have traveled the world and seen amazing work,” Annan told the 100 unusually rapt students who gathered in the campus center to hear him speak, “but Macalester was my first real travel.”

On his tour of campus he stopped by the Leonard Center at the ping-pong table that bears his name(a tribute to the singles and doubles championships he won in his college days), posed with a paddle and autographed the table.

“I was in Kirk Hall,” he said. “I had lots of fun there; we played lots of soccer around campus.”

He said he was impressed by the selflessness he sees in Macalester students. “You expect young people,” he said, “to spend all their time listening to music, spending all their free time listening to music, but sometimes you see young people cleaning up a city.”

Annan said the United Nations’ work is focused on bolstering three pillars: economic development; peace and security; and the rule of law and human rights. He said he was particularly proud of leading the United Nations to “place economic issues at the center of the work.”

After the Kagin Hall luncheon, Annan, in his deep, deliberate voice, answered questions from President Brian Rosenberg about his career trajectory, the U.S. presidential election, and the role of the United States and the United Nations in influencing world affairs.

He described his role as head of the U.N. Peacekeeping Operations as “trying to marry military and civilian culture,” he continued, “You cannot use sovereignty as a shield behind which you brutalize your people.”

He emphasized the need to reform the U.N. Security Council so that its power, instead of being concentrated in the hands of World War II victors, can expand to include the new economic tigers such as India, Japan, China and Brazil.

“Globalization,” he said, “has been positive, but I am always weary in that there are people who have been left out and are on the margins.”

Annan endorsed the approach of the Obama administration toward foreign policy. “I think the posture of the current administration is very encouraging,” he said. “Other countries are prepared to work with the U.S., but the U.S. must also listen.”

He also recalled a conversation he had in March 2008, when Barack Obama was gaining momentum over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. “I said I was rather surprised because a shift had taken place in society that I had missed, because six months earlier I had said, ‘I don’t think America’s ready for a black president or a woman president,’ and someone said, ‘Maybe they can run together,’ and I said, ‘That would be a double jeopardy.'”

Local media were invited to the unveiling of the life-sized bust of Annan by sculptor Elizabeth Jones in the foyer of Markim Hall, the new building for the Institute for Global Citizenship. Annan said he had initial reservations about the bust. “I said, ‘What do you mean a bust? You make busts of only dead people,'” Annan told the crowd, according to Minnesota Public Radio. “But a friend of ours said ‘No, no, no. It’s an artistic contribution. Even if you don’t feel like it, let the artist do it.'”

When Annan entered Kagin for the luncheon, the approximately 300 attendees rose from their tables and applauded as he traced a path along the south wall of Kagin and stopped only to shake hands with Dean Edstrom ’62, a Minneapolis lawyer who was friends with Annan when they were classmates.

Edstrom said he has seen Annan over the years through alumni events and through his work with Rotary International. “He was a wonderful presence on campus,” Edstrom said. “We all thought he was going to be president of Ghana someday.”

Kabir Sethi ’09 and Anne Johnson ’09 were selected by Hamre to ask pre-screened questions of Annan during the “informal conversation” in the campus center lecture hall. (They said they thought they were selected because Hamre knew them from their work on the Step Forward fundraising campaign; Sethi has also served as head of Model United Nations.)

“I was extremely nervous,” Sethi said. “I was sweating and shaking a little.

“It seems like everything he says is so profound-it has that gravitas.”

Diarra Gueye ’11 of Senegal said she admires Annan and “would like to emulate him in his views on changing the world.”

“The questions I found most interesting,” she said, “were the more down-to-earth questions that make him sound more like a human.”

Annan left the United Nations in 2006, and now he leads a foundation in Switzerland, which focuses on “building peace and facilitating more equitable sharing of the benefits of globalization.” He has accepted a lecturing position as a global fellow at Columbia University.

At Rosenberg’s prompting, he told a story about leaving his U.N. post. “You don’t realize how tired you are until you stop,” he said. Annan and his wife decided to stay in a remote home near Como, Italy, where they planned to seclude themselves from the television, the Internet, and the news for three months. After six weeks, he said, the restless Annan broke his plans and took a trip to Como to buy a newspaper. In the shop a man seemed to recognize him, and Annan worried that if his presence were known, it could cause trouble for the local police. Telling the story, Annan smiled as he told the punch line. The man approached the Nobel laureate and asked, “Morgan Freeman, may I have your autograph?