For Mellody Hobson, it was a brief encounter with Nelson Mandela.
“I remember — this is one of the few times in my life I actually remember my knees shaking,” Ms. Hobson said.
With the death in December of Mr. Mandela, honored worldwide for his decisive leadership in developing democracy and racial reconciliation in one of the largest countries in Africa, Ms. Hobson, president of Ariel Investments LLC, Chicago, recalled her brush with a man whom she calls “one of the greatest people of the century.”
The encounter was at the Johannesburg airport, then called the Jan Smuts International Airport, in June 1991.
Ms. Hobson, a new graduate of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations and Public Policy, was in South Africa with a group of Princeton students on a school-financed project requested by the United Nations to help write a post-apartheid constitution for South Africa.
On their way to the meetings, their flight to Cape Town was delayed, the city fogged in.
Ms. Hobson and her group “were just hanging out at the Johannesburg airport really early in the morning,” 6 o'clock, Ms. Hobson related. “We are (all) kind of groggy and ... I look up and say to our crew, "You're never going to believe this. Nelson Mandela is walking toward us.'”
“So we all gather around Mr. Mandela,” with Ms. Hobson saying to him, “Oh, my goodness, we can't believe we are meeting you.”
“My plane can't land in Cape Town.” Mr. Mandela told the group, adding, “So I'm stuck” like the group.
“We stood and talked with him for a few minutes,” Ms. Hobson said.
When “he went to leave, he turned to us and said, "I can't wait to get back to the office and tell everyone who I met.'”
“That was just sort of his way of being obviously so gracious and kind and showing such humility,” Ms. Hobson said.
Ms. Hobson doesn't know if any of the team's work was incorporated into the country's new constitution.
On Aug. 1 of that same year, she joined Ariel as an associate in client services and marketing.
A few years after her first encounter, Ms. Hobson saw Mr. Mandela give a speech in Texas.
“I don't have any personal relationship with him,” she said. “He would not have known who I was. ... In the realm of the many, many, many people in his life, I was just one encounter.”