(USA Today) — In a moving tribute to Maya Angelou on Saturday former President Bill Clinton said that her greatest gift during her action-packed lifetime was paying attention to life around her and sharing it with everyone.
"She called our attention to the fact that things that really mattered, dignity, work, love and kindness are things we can all share and don't cost anything,'' Clinton said.
"She just kept calling our attention to things, like the little fireflies that come on at unpredictable times and make you see something you might have missed."
Oprah Winfrey said she remembered the first time she heard the Angelou phrase "God put a rainbow in the clouds." Winfrey was locked in her bathroom sitting on the toilet crying about something when she called Angelou to cry on her shoulder.
"She wasn't having it," Winfrey said of Angelou. "She said, 'stop it, stop it now.""
Winfrey said Angelou told her "I want you to stop and say thank you, because whatever it is, you have the faith to know that God has put a rainbow in the clouds and you're going to come out on the other side of whatever it is the better for it."
"She was always there for me to be the rainbow," Winfrey said, "And I'm here today to say thank you and to acknowledge to you all and the world how powerful one life can be."
Said first lady Michelle Obama: "Her words sustained me on every step of my journey," Obama said. "Words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House."
Family, friends and famous admirers gathered Saturday in North Carolina for a memorial service and weekend-long tribute to poet, orator and sage. There were tears and laughter and spiritual revival-style singing to honor Angelou at the private service at Wake Forest University that included more than 2,000 people. Angelou died May 28 at age 86 after a remarkable life with important roles in civil rights and the arts.
Born into poverty and segregation, Angelou rose to become an accomplished actress, singer, dancer and writer. Although she never graduated from college, she taught for more than 30 years at the private North Carolina university, where she was regularly addressed as Dr. Angelou out of respect for all the honorary degrees she received.
Those who arrived were handed a program, which was a collage of her life.
"This has been very difficult for our family," said Elliott Jones, her grandson who opened the service with a poem. "We've always had to share grandma with the globe … all of you loved her as we loved her and she loved us all ... today we celebrate an amazing life, a life well lived."
"Our sister, our mother, our friend will always be with us," said Andrew Young, diplomat, civil rights activist and former Atlanta mayor.
Actress Cicely Tyson, who has known Angelou for 50 years, said "we've lost a rock. I'm told that I have 10 minutes. I don't know how one consolidates a bond in 10 minutes."
Clinton spoke of how he saw Angelou a couple of weeks ago at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the civil rights act. Clinton said he went over to her and said he couldn't believe she was there.
"Just because I am wheelchair bound doesn't mean i don't get around," she chastised Clinton.
In recalling about how Angelou had enough experiences for five lifetimes, Clinton noted how she had lost her voice as a child.
"It was her voice, she was without a voice for five years and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet," he said. "God loaned her his voice, she had the voice of God, and He decided he wanted it back."
Winfrey was moved to tears as she spoke about Angelou.
"The loss i feel I cannot describe," she said. "It's like something I never felt before."
"We must carry on and pass on, lifting humanity up, helping people to live lives of purpose and dignity, to pass on the courage and respect that is what she would want," Winfrey said at the end of her tribute. "That is what we will do."
Obama called Angelou "one of the greatest spirits we've ever known" and spoke about how Angelou had such an effect on her life, from a young black girl growing up to "lonely moments in Ivy-covered classrooms and colorless classes."
"She paved the way for me and Oprah and so many others, just to be our good, old, black women selves," Obama said. "She did this for everyone. She taught us it is OK to be your regular self ... she touched me, she touched all of you, she touched people across the globe."