Tour request granted Bergt a one-on-one interaction with Tutu

· 4 min read

Tour request granted Bergt a one-on-one interaction with Tutu

Mug shots of Eileen Bergt and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The photo of Tutu is courtesy of Tinseltown via Shutterstock.
Nebraska's Eileen Bergt (left) provided a campus tour to Archbishop Desmond Tutu during his 2000 University of Nebraska–Lincoln visit. Tutu came to the university to deliver an E.N. Thompson Forum lecture.

An unexpected request to give Desmond Tutu a campus tour had Nebraska’s Eileen Bergt searching for a singular answer.

“The request was a bit of a shock, but I was mostly worried about what car we were going to use,” Bergt, assistant director of Landscape Services, said. “We couldn’t use my car because it wasn’t very nice. And, I did not want to use one of our Landscape Services pickups to haul the archbishop around the university.”

Tutu, who died Dec. 26 at 90, traveled to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to deliver an E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues lecture on April 26, 2000. The hour-long talk, attended by thousands, featured the Nobel Peace Prize winner discussing the end of apartheid in South Africa. He received three standing ovations during the presentation — along with an honorary degree of humane letters and the Willa Cather Medal, a university honor reserved for individuals whose words and actions uphold the highest values of humanity and service to the world.

Tutu was also quick to downplay the individual honors, urging the crowd to celebrate the people of South Africa and their 40-plus-year fight against apartheid.

“When you stand out in a crowd, it is because you have been carried on the shoulders of others,” Tutu was quoted as saying in a Daily Nebraskan report.

Some 36 hours prior to the talk, Bergt sought a suitable tour car. A suggestion from a supervisor — Jim Main — directed the search to the University Police Department and an unmarked black Crown Victoria reserved for the chief of police. Bill Manning, who was interim chief at the time, approved the request.

“When I got in the car, I was surprised that it was all decked out with police stuff on the inside,” Bergt said. “There were lights on the visors and all sorts of switches in the console between the seats.

“I guess if we wanted to, we could have tried to arrest someone.”

Bergt picked up Tutu in downtown Lincoln — probably the Cornhusker Hotel. She recalls him stepping out on his own with no security or entourage. He wore dark clothing, was relatively quiet, a great listener, and extremely interested in the police extras in the Crown Vic.

“We started driving around and he was looking at all that police stuff, pointing at it and asking what it was,” Bergt said. “All I could say is that I had borrowed the car from the chief for the tour and I didn’t know what the switches did.”

The duo drove around City and East campuses for an hour, with Bergt pointing out historic buildings, important campus spots and various plantings. She had planned for a walkthrough of Maxwell Arboretum on East Campus, but Tutu was tired from traveling and asked that they remain in the car.

On the return to the hotel, Tutu thanked Bergt for the tour and ventured back to his room.

“We really didn’t talk much about him or his experience,” Bergt said. “Our conversation was primarily me talking about the university and him saying appreciative things.

“At the time, it didn’t sink in about how significant of a person he was. It was all last minute and I had to focus on getting the car and where to take him. I didn’t have time to focus on the person.”

Today, the one-on-one experience with Tutu remains a point of pride for Bergt.

“When I heard he had passed away, it brought back all of the thoughts I had of his service to the world and our time together on that tour,” Bergt said. “It was an incredible opportunity and one I will always treasure.”

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