A Sweet Memory of the Wonderful Cicely Tyson

Posted on January 29, 2021

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By David Ettinger

A Life Well Lived
On January 28, the great actress Cicely Tyson died at age 96. This distinguished thespian won an Emmy Award, Tony Award, and was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her role in the 1972 film Sounder.

A long life indeed for this distinguished woman who achieved so much, and hers was a life well lived. And strange as it may seem, I actually have a live-and-in-person memory of her which has stayed fresh in my mind for almost 41 years.

A Fond Memory
The year was 1979, and it was my first year at New Mexico State University. I had moved from the Northeast to Las Cruces, New Mexico, just 3 months earlier and I still had my New Yawk accent with which I called my future wife Barb, “Bawb,” drove a cah, and had a dawg. I felt like such a slob!

It was Black History Month, and NMSU was celebrating it with two outstanding guests: The accomplished author Alex Haley, who wrote the groundbreaking saga, Roots, and, on the next evening, the celebrated Ms. Tyson.

Barb and I had gone the first evening to hear Mr. Haley speak. I was impressed by his message, but mostly by his baritone speaking voice – not quite on the level of James Earl Jones – but impressive all the same.

Before Mr. Haley spoke, Barb purchased a copy of Roots, and following his speech, we both approached him for an autograph. He was gracious indeed. When Barb asked, “Mr. Haley, will you please sign your book?” he replied, “Of course, young lady.” He took the book, signed it, handed it back to Barb, and said, “There you go, young lady.”

I was so impressed with his deep voice and noble manner, but – with my New Yawk accent and long, unruly hair – I felt like such a ragamuffin compared to him. He definitely made an impression on me!

Then came the next night, when Ms. Tyson spoke at the Pan American Center. Barb and I arrived early so we could sit close to the stage – after all, this was an Oscar-nominated actress, which at that time impressed us to no end!

Ms. Tyson’s presentation was wonderful. She spoke about her upbringing in Harlem, New York, the challenges she faced both in her personal life and in her chosen profession, and shared a few humorous stories from both.

When she was done, she opened the time up for a question-and-answer session. Barb, at 19, and I, at 21, had no idea what to ask her, but fortunately many in the audience did.

Cicely Tyson from “Sounder”

Come On Up!
A middle-aged man stood up and asked the question which sparked the reaction which has stayed with me all these years. He said: “Ms. Tyson, here I am, just some guy living in Las Cruces, New Mexico. When am I ever going to get another opportunity to be in the presence of a star such as yourself.”

At this point, the audience began laughing warmly as there was nothing awkward about the moment, but rather, it was sincere. The gentleman added: “Ms. Tyson, may I please have a hug?”

The audience burst into full-fledged laughter ­– as did Ms. Tyson. She was smiling from ear to ear, and then did a great thing: She opened her arms wide and said to the star-struck fellow: “Sir, come on up to the stage and get your hug!”

He ran to the stage and threw his arms around the esteemed Ms. Tyson, and the two shared a hearty embrace. The audience loved it and loudly applauded.

For me, it was a wonderful moment shared by an African-American woman and a white middle-class gentleman. Color didn’t matter as this gentleman expressed his admiration for a great artist, and she with grace and kindness responded in the warmest way she could.

As I read the news of Ms. Tyson’s passing, this memory came flooding back to me. I thank both she and that gentleman for creating this sweet memory which has stayed with me for more than 4 decades, and I certainly pray for God’s comfort upon the family of the wonderful Cicely Tyson.