Ex-Gov. George Ryan remembers Nelson Mandela at memorial service
BY BRIAN SLODYSKO Staff Reporter December 15, 2013 9:46PM
Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan speaks during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the Beloved Community Christian Church of God in Christ on Sunday in Chicago. Mandela was buried Sunday in South Africa. Brian Kersey/AP
Updated: January 17, 2014 6:33AM
Ever hear the one about the Republican governor who begged a communist dictator to introduce him to a Nobel Peace Prize winner?
It may sound like a joke, but there’s no punch line here.
It’s the story of how former Gov. George Ryan met Nelson Mandela at the former South African leader’s home during a 2000 trade mission.
Ryan recounted the story Sunday during a memorial for Mandela hosted by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., at the Beloved Community Christian Church of God in Christ, where Rush is pastor.
Ryan was just one of several speakers who eulogized Mandela during the memorial service, including U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.; Juan Salgado, president and CEO of Instituto Del Progreso Latino in Chicago, and consuls general from Pakistan, Japan, Ireland, India, South Africa and Indonesia.
It was the first high-profile public engagement for Ryan, 79, since he was released from federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., in January after serving about five years on racketeering and fraud charges.
“That’s what’s good about humanity, when the artificial lines and walls are transcended,” Rush said, explaining why he had invited the former governor to speak. “You end with Fidel Castro, Governor Ryan and Nelson Mandela — what a beautiful thought.”
Back in 2000, staff members for then-Gov. Ryan tried to get a meeting with Mandela during the trip but were rebuffed, Ryan recalled.
“We were told that Nelson Mandela was a busy man and that he only met with heads of nations and world leaders,” Ryan told the mostly full church at 6430 S. Harvard in Englewood.
But then someone in the trade group had an epiphany. Ryan, who met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro the previous year, had maintained friendly enough relations with the communist dictator that his staffers were comfortable asking a favor of Castro, who was a close ally of Mandela’s.
“The staff I had called back to Cuba, to Fidel Castro, who had a long personal, affectionate relationship with Nelson Mandela over the years and asked if he could put in a good word,” Ryan said. “Don’t you know what happened? We had a meeting.”
Eulogizing Mandela, who died earlier this month at 95, Ryan described the life lesson he took away from their 30-minute meeting at Mandela’s home.
“We basically listened to what he had to say, and those 30 minutes were filled with emotion and inspiration,” said Ryan, who said he teared up during the meeting. “He was a towering figure of courage tenacity and forgiveness. He wanted to help mankind, help his fellow man.”
But it wasn’t Ryan’s last interaction with the man credited with bringing down Apartheid.
Several years later, after Ryan had imposed a moratorium on the executions in Illinois, Mandela called him while Ryan was contemplating commuting the sentences of inmates on Death Row.
“I hadn’t decided what my decision was going to be, and Nelson Mandela called me from South Africa and asked me to do what I [eventually] did and it had an impact on my actions,” Ryan said.