When Maya Angelou Came to McKendree, and What Became of Our Gift to Her


By Greg Kassen, Contributing Writer

On Feb. 4, 2003, Dr. Maya Angelou, a St. Louis native, spoke as the keynote speaker at McKendree’s Founder’s Day celebration honoring 175 years of operation. At this time McKendree was not yet a university. Angelou, who is arguably the most influential literary voice to speak at the college, drew in a packed crowd of 2,600 listeners in the Statham Center.

Dr. John Greenfield, a retired professor who taught for 33 years at McKendree, attended that day.  He recalls: “It was in the big gym and was totally packed. She was very moving and powerful when she related how she had the strength to persevere in the face of many obstacles –abuse, poverty, racism. It was probably the best attended speaker event since I’ve been here.” Angelou died a year later in May 2004.

A few weeks ago, I ran across this information about Angelou’s speech in one of McKendree’s online yearbooks. I was amazed that such an accomplished individual had come to Lebanon, Illinois, and I decided to research how McKendree was able to secure such an important and honorable guest.

Apparently, Angelou was not the only major literary figure to grace McKendree with her presence. Just four months prior, on Oct. 2, 2002, Nobel Laureate in Peace and author Ellie Wiesel spoke at McKendree. I was never able to find any information on how Angelou was secured as a speaker; however, I did find an interesting auction going on that related to the event:

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EBay listing for “Maya Angelou 2003 Mckendree College AWARD PLAQUE”

The plaque that McKendree awarded to Angelou the day she visited was being auctioned on eBay by some user in Georgia. And, with a $59.99 starting bid, nobody was interested. I soon found out that this was not the first time the plaque was put up for sale. The same user auctioned the plaque three times before, each with a lower starting bid than the previous, and each ending without any takers.

Since finding the listing, I have made a point to keep tabs on the seller’s account to see if he would try to auction the plaque off again. And, on April 12th, I saw the plaque being offered for a fifth time with an opening bid of $49. But this time it sold!

Unfortunately, with eBay’s privacy concerns for its buyers, I was not able to discover who bought the plaque (If you or anyone you know did, feel free to comment below!). However, I do know that the buyer paid the “Buy it now” price of $79.00 with a $15.50 shipping charge.

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EBay listing for the sold plaque

This purchase comes a little over two weeks after Angelou’s birthday (April 4) and continues the legacy of the plaque. As far as I can tell, there have been three owners of this piece. First, Dr. Maya Angelou. The second owner was a man whose name I assume to be Tyler (tylertyler26 is his eBay account name) who, based on the description he provided for the item, most likely bought the piece from the Angelou estate sale after her death. And now a third mystery person owns the plaque.

This one-of-a-kind piece has had such a history in only 16 years, and leads me to wonder if any other distinguished speakers have had McKendree plaques sold on the second-hand market as well.

 

EDITOR’S UPDATE:  As Paula Martin and Debbie Houk reported in the comments, the plaque is once again here at McKendree!  Curious readers can view the plaque on display among the artifacts from other distinguished speakers in the museum.  When Greg reached out to the English professors here at McKendree for comments regarding Maya Angelou’s visit, Dr. Martha Patterson reached out to Dr. Tami Eggleston, who then contacted Paula Martin, library director.  Paula was happy to purchase the plaque and return it to McKendree for posterity.