Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan (second from left) meets with former South African President Nelson Mandela (right) in Johannesburg on May 24, 2000. Ryan's wife, Laura Lynn is on the left. | Brent Hanson/AP
Updated: August 2, 2013 6:58AM
A Mandela memo. . .
Former Gov. George Ryan will become a free man this week; formally released from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons after serving 5 ½ years on political corruption charges.
Sneed is told Ryan, who has yet to speak to the press since his release from prison and subsequent house arrest, has been keeping a close watch on a man he met 13 years ago; a man who also spent time in prison: former South African President Nelson Mandela.
“Meeting Mandela, whose life is now hanging in the balance, was a life changing experience for George,” a close Ryan friend tells Sneed.
“He will never forget the time he sat in Nelson Mandela’s living room and teared up listening to this great man speak kindly and without anger over what had happened to him.”
Let us digress.
In 2000, then-Gov. Ryan led a trade mission to South Africa following a headline-grabbing trade mission to Cuba the year before. Illinois was the first state to lead such a mission to Cuba since now-former Cuban President Fidel Castro seized power decades earlier.
◆ The upshot: Ryan wanted to meet Mandela, but the “Lion of Africa” only met heads of state. Sneed hears Castro, a close friend of Mandela’s, interceded and the meeting was arranged.
◆ Backshot: Sneed was part of the press corps accompanying the Ryan trade mission to South Africa and snagged an exclusive interview with a teary Ryan minutes after his meeting with Mandela.
As the world now prepares for the passing of Mandela, here are a few snippets from that 2000 interview.
“We were in his living room and he [Mandela] spoke without a scintilla of bitterness.”
“They beat the hell out of him, and this great man kept telling us how honored he was to meet us!” Ryan said.
“I couldn’t believe how I felt. Yes, I got teary. Who wouldn’t? This man spent 27 years in prison trying to free his people. It’s not surprising a man would come out crying.”
Ryan also drew contrasts between his historic meeting with Castro in 1999 and Mandela, South Africa’s emancipator and first black president.
“Castro was a dictator; Mandela was a liberator. When I met with Castro, he was strident and kept talking politics. Mandela talked in human terms.
“Castro was angry. Mandela was not. I couldn’t help but think Castro had done to his people what apartheid had done to Mandela.”
“Mandela told me: ‘Your trip to Cuba was a brave move,’” Ryan said.
Ryan gave Mandela a large bust of Abraham Lincoln. It was inscribed with Lincoln’s words: “The strongest hand of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people of all nations.”
It was identical to the Lincoln bust Ryan gave to Castro.
“Castro kept talking about how many calories his people ate each day,” Ryan said. “Mandela talked about the education of his people and the HIV-AIDS epidemic that is decimating them.”
“Mandela, sitting in a comfortable chair, drinking a glass of hot water and wearing an AIDS red ribbon button, told the group that talking about sex was taboo in his country and “if a child ever asked his mother where he came from, they got slapped in the face.”
Ryan’s beloved wife, Lura Lynn, who died while her husband was in prison, told Sneed then, “Everybody [in the room] hugged Mandela, except my husband.
“He was just transfixed by the man,” she said. “Mandela also inscribed our copy of his autobiography: ‘Best wishes to an outstanding governor.’
“He asked me how long it took me to say ‘yes’ when George proposed. I said, ‘Not long.’”
Mandela was given a team jersey emblazoned with his name and a baseball signed by Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa.
At the end of the 30-minute meeting with Ryan, Mandela, dressed in a gray silk paisley shirt and gray slacks, arose and walked the entourage to the porch, where a group picture was to be taken.
”I grabbed Mandela’s arm instinctively and tried to help him down a flight of stairs, but he told me his knees couldn’t handle it,” Ryan said.
“But what really moved me was he had to stand one foot behind the sunlight flooding the porch because his eyes had been damaged in prison.”
That was then. This is now. An encounter they will never forget.
Sneedlings. . .
Blackhawk Andrew Shaw stopped by Chicago Cut Thursday, and received a standing ovation when he came in and when he left. . . Saturday’s birthdays: Gary Busey, 69; Richard Lewis, 66, and Robert Evans, 83. . . Sunday’s birthdays: Michael Phelps, 28; Mike Tyson, 47, and Ed Genson, ageless.