P.E.I. native recounts profound impact of meeting Nelson Mandela

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This photo of Juanita Rossiter was taken when she was in South Africa in 2006. She regrets not getting a photo taken next to Nelson Mandela, who she met on two occasions.

Juanita Rossiter didn’t just meet Nelson Mandela, she became immersed in the late, great man’s life.

Rossiter, a farm kid from Prince Edward Island, got the gig of a lifetime in 2006 after moving to Toronto to become an archivist.

On the strength of an internship set up with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, she spent three and a half months in South Africa in 2006.

Her job was to do preliminary archival description of Mandela’s papers, pouring through everything from a note soccer great David Beckham sent to the anti-apartheid leader, to a Christmas card sent from the Dalai Lama to the first black president of South Africa.

She cannot discuss the material, which will eventually be made available to the public, other than to say she gleaned considerable insight into Mandela.

Rossiter also had the heady thrill of meeting Mandela face to face: twice.

Her archival work was conducted in the same place Mandela worked following his retirement. He would primarily show up at the office to meet with people, often celebrities.

Rossiter had been working for three weeks before her first direct encounter with Mandela, who she would see pass by from time to time. The anticipation of meeting such an iconic person — a man simply loved and respected around the world — left her without a coherent thought in her head.

“I was physically shaking,’’ she recalled in a telephone interview from Toronto on Monday.

She was led into Mandela’s office along with colleague Jill Ruby, a librarian. The pair sat in awe as their boss had Mandela verify personal facts for a publication.

“It was very surreal,’’ she said. “It was hard to remain calm and to stay focused.’’

The meeting, not surprisingly, was more than she could ever had hoped or expected.

“He took my hand and he said ‘You know, I have many grandsons, and you can have your pick.’ I just burst out laughing. He thought I was great. I guess I gave him the reaction he wanted.’’

As for Mandela, he certainly didn’t disappoint Rossiter.

She came to South Africa well versed on the remarkable man having done a good bit of reading up on that country’s first democratically-elected president.

Still, the personal and personable meeting gave her a special glimpse of Mandela.

“He is very good at calming you down,’’ she said. “People talk about the twinkle in his eye and he has it. He is just adorable.’’

She met Mandela a second and final time, having the opportunity to shake his hand and wish him a happy 88th birthday. She saw a good deal of Mandela passing by that week, so much so that she stopped “freaking out’’ over each sighting.

Rossiter, the sister of P.E.I. Fire Marshal Dave Rossiter, returned to Toronto profoundly marked by her meetings with Mandela. Not only did she feel blessed for the opportunity to be in the presence of someone so special, she also credits Mandela with giving her a more ambitious outlook on life.

“He really does represent that anything is possible,’’ she says.

“Also what I got from here is never underestimate your own potential or the potential of people around you.’’

Mandela’s passing Thursday at the age of 95 has left Rossiter, as it has millions of others, with mixed emotions.

“It is a time to celebrate but I couldn’t help but (also) be sad,’’ she said.

Organizations: Nelson Mandela Foundation

Geographic location: Toronto, South Africa, Prince Edward Island

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  • JR Cardwell
    December 10, 2013 - 08:31

    Nice human interest story, however, we should not all drink the Nelson Mandela kool-aide. Canada, and PEI, have had a lot of South Africa ex-pats who might have a different perspective on Mandela. Let's not forget that he was a communist, was in jail for murder, was a "terrorist" by any conventional definition, and that he did not do a lot to stop the Winnie Mandela neckties. I'd be really interested to know how those things are portrayed in his archives.

    • Just saying
      December 10, 2013 - 10:46

      Stephen Harper , George bush, and Barack Obama have "murdered" many more people than Mandela.