(You can read Part 1 here)
The Westmont College President’s Breakfast had sold out twice over (a second room with a video projector had been added), and well it should have: a former U.S. secretary of state and national security advisor; a professor at Stanford University; a concert pianist; and a woman who, while growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, couldn’t get served a hamburger at the local Woolworth store because of her skin color — all rolled up into one fabulous person.
It was 6:15 a. m. when I arrived at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort. I had a brief and joyful reunion with my former Westmont co-workers and received my instructions. Volunteer tables were in one of the rooms on a far side of the hotel. As I left to find it, I noticed a man in sunglasses outside the main entrance. Later I was told he was only one of the many Secret Service members who were armed, scattered, and watching everyone who walked in.
I set down my sweater to reserve a seat that was facing the video screen. Then I walked back to the entrance and began greeting the guests, and helping them to find their assigned tables.
Breakfast began. I looked into the ballroom and saw the loveliness of the table settings, the flower bouquets, and the people conversing. We had seated everyone and I lingered awhile outside the ballroom, wondering where Dr. Rice would be seated.
Then I heard my name and saw the assistant to the president of Westmont College coming towards me. I had worked closely with Nancy when I was employed by the college, and it was good to see her again.
“Darla, I want you to have my seat.”
Inside the Grand Ballroom where I would be able to see Dr. Rice in person.
The place where folks had forked out $150 each to have a seat.
Nancy would not accept my “No.” I was so surprised at her offer that at first I found it hard to believe. Then I thought it was too generous to accept. Finally, I gave in to her insistence. The seat was at a table towards the back of the room, which meant I could slip out easily if I was needed. I shared breakfast with people I did not know, and I held back tears and thought about the sweet friends that I have in my life.
The program began and I was enjoying the speakers from Westmont’s community. I was surprised to hear my name whispered and I turned to see a hostess. She was holding a map of the numbered tables in the ballroom.
“Excuse me,” she said to me. “Mrs. Schuck (Kim, a friend I hadn’t seen for several years until that morning) has an extra seat at her table and would like you to come and join them. It’s Table 3.”
Table 3 was in the very front of the ballroom. Table 3 was right next to Table 2.
Table 2 was Dr. Rice’s table.
By then the program was in full swing. I felt awkward walking up to the front alone, so I asked one of the waiters to escort me to the table. The Westmont Choir had just finished singing Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance,” and the hymn’s refrain echoed in my mind as I went forward. When I got to Table 3, I tapped Kim’s shoulder and gave her a bewildered smile. She pointed to the one empty seat.
It was the seat closest to the podium.
When I looked back at Kim, she had an expression on her face of pure and joyful pleasure.
I sat down and looked to my right. There, a few feet to the side of me, sitting at Table 2, was Dr. Rice. I smiled and silently said, “Thank you, God.”
From a letter to a front-row seat.
From a segregated town to the Secretary of State.
There we were: Dr. Rice and me at a ritzy resort in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. Two women, both feeling pretty special. One was being honored for her personal and political achievements. And me — well, I just happen to know some of the kindest, most thoughtful people on earth.
As I listened to Dr. Rice, I recalled passages from what I had read in her autobiography, such as her telling of the infamous Birmingham church bombing that took the lives of four young girls in 1963. One of the girls was a neighborhood friend of hers.
I looked at her and thought, “Dr. Rice is a clear example of how far this country has come.”
And the statement from her speech that stood out most to me was one of the first things she said:
“… [My parents taught me] that you might not always be able to control your circumstances, but you can control your response to your circumstances.”
Obviously, Dr. Rice took that excellent bit of wisdom to heart.
I never did get to speak with Condoleezza Rice and tell her how much I admire her. As soon as the program ended, she was surrounded by others who felt the same, so I went back to help with the clean-up. Throughout her speech, though, I did catch her eye and I am certain that she was looking right at me when she spoke that inspiring statement about circumstances.
I was both tearful and determined when I left the resort, in love with my friends and with Dr. Rice’s triumphs, and with God.
Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Saviour am happy and blest;
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.
(From the hymn “Blessed Assurance”)