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Locals remember Maya Angelou (w/video)

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Her son and only child, Guy Johnson of Oakland, worked in the Sonoma County human resources department in the early 1970s, said Stephen Turer, a veteran criminal defense attorney who befriended Johnson.

About 15 years ago, the Turers began attending Angelou's Thanksgiving soirees that melded races, genders, sexualities and nationalities, the couple said.

"One of the things she would constantly talk about is how we should accept everybody," Stephen Turer said. "Her words always had a tremendous impact."

Six feet tall with a deep, theatrical voice, Angelou was often described as imposing, but Stephen Turer said he found her gracious and "friendly to everybody."

The Turers also attended two of the even more spectacular events, birthday parties hosted every five years by Oprah Winfrey, including Angelou's 80th birthday at Donald Trump's estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

The invitations arrived in a box with a small cake, and the Florida party ended with a surprise yacht trip, the Turers said.

Angelou's presence at her 85th birthday party last year in Winston-Salem was curtailed because of her failing health, they said.

"Knowing her and just being in her presence is a blessing. Something I'll be grateful for all my life," said Neva Turer, a former Sonoma County Community Foundation board member.

Stephen Turer said the nation lost a treasure with Angelou's passing. "I don't see anybody who has her aura and character."

Angelou moved to Sonoma County about 1973 with her second husband, Paul du Feu, who had previously been married to feminist Germaine Greer.

In a 1975 interview with The Press Democrat, Angelou, an expert cook, said she was drawn to the Sonoma-area house by its vast kitchen, which accommodated her collection of about 100 cookbooks.

Ernie Carpenter, a former west county supervisor, said he met Angelou — through her son — without knowing who she was, but was astonished.

"She was always on," Carpenter said. "She was a teacher, always with something to say that resonates. She was always promoting people and building them up."

Angelou lived for a time at the Bouverie Ranch with her friend, the late M.F.K. Fisher, a food writer and founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library, Carpenter said.

Angelou's poetry spoke to all of America and "held the country together," he said.

Carpenter's favorite is "On the Pulse of Morning," the poem Angelou wrote for and famously delivered at former President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. She was the nation's second inaugural poet, following Robert Frost, who spoke at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration.

In 2010, Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama and last month a portrait of her was unveiled at the National Portrait Galley in Washington, D.C.

Santa Rosa resident Evelyn Cheatham said her most memorable contact with Angelou was an evening in the 1980s that she called "the best night of my life."

It was a pre-Christmas party at author Jessica Mitford's home in Oakland, where Cheatham had worked in an after-school reading program for young black males started by Angelou.

"I idolized her," said Cheatham, who runs the Worth Our Weight culinary program for at-risk youth in Santa Rosa.

About 40 people were at the party, and Cheatham said she felt out of place until Angelou said, "Come sit by me, child" and held Cheatham's hand as they talked and Angelou told stories.

"I felt like I was being accepted into this community of grown-up women," Cheatham said. "Smart, powerful women."

"It was so amazing. I was flying high."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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