Macalester mourns the loss of Kofi Annan ’61, “the ultimate embodiment of Macalester’s mission.”

BY REBECCA DEJARLAIS ORTIZ ’06

Kofi Ofosu ’19 grew up in Kwahu Bepong, Ghana, approximately 80 miles from where Kofi Annan ’61 was born in Kumasi. The two shared a name, in an Akan language tradition for boys born on a Friday. And of course Ofosu knew about Annan. Everyone in Ghana knew about the renowned leader who represented the country in global diplomacy, serving as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006 and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 in honor of his work to revitalize the UN and prioritize human rights.

“For a long time I wondered why he didn’t run for president of Ghana,” Ofosu says. “Meeting him had always been my dream.”

image of Kofi Annan with student leaders on campus in May 2018
In May, Kofi Annan met with two dozen student leaders on campus.

Ofosu got that chance in May, more than 6,000 miles away from Ghana. On a bright Monday morning after final exams had concluded, the chemistry major and Davis United World College Scholar joined two dozen other Macalester student leaders for breakfast with Annan, who had returned to his alma mater for the dedication of the Kofi Annan Institute for Global Citizenship, renamed in his honor. Representing the Afrika! student organization, Ofosu went into the Weyerhaeuser boardroom expecting to find a statesman who was imposing, brash, and outspoken—traits he’d come to expect from successful politicians and global leaders.

Instead, what stood out immediately was what Ofosu described as quiet charisma. Before fielding questions about decisions and challenges he faced during his career, Annan told the students about his own Macalester experience during his two years on campus through a Ford Foundation program that placed foreign nationals in U.S. colleges and universities. He talked about how his worldview broadened at Mac, a message that resonated with the current students, Ofosu says.

image Kofi Annan with students

An economics major, Annan was a state-champion orator who also played soccer, loved Ping-Pong, and set a school record in the 60-yard dash. He also explored the United States with classmates through Macalester’s Ambassadors for Friendship program, which sent out groups of students in Nash Rambler station wagons in the ’60s and ’70s.

As Annan spoke, the students seated around the table were in “almost absolute silence,” says political science major Umar Hassan ’19 (Minneapolis). “Everyone was engaged—he had a commanding voice, even though he was soft-spoken. He told us about the lessons he took away from Mac. He carried the civic engagement focus with him and told us to not lose sight of that when we leave.”

Later that day, Annan and President Brian Rosenberg sat down in front of a much larger audience in the fieldhouse for a conversation that examined leadership, current global challenges, and youth engagement. The campus event closed with Rosenberg leading more than 3,000 audience members in singing “Happy Birthday” to Annan, who had turned 80 in April. “That’s the first time I’ve had that many people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me,” Annan told the crowd, laughing.

Less than four months later, the Macalester community in St. Paul woke up on Saturday, August 18, to learn that Annan had died at a hospital in Bern, Switzerland, after an unexpected brief illness.

That morning, Rosenberg sent a message to the Macalester community. “You can read elsewhere about the extraordinary public accomplishments of this man from Ghana who moved from our campus onto the world stage, where he became a forceful advocate for peace and human rights around the globe,” he wrote. “He was for many years, and will forever remain, the ultimate embodiment of Macalester’s mission.

“What I want to underscore is that Kofi Annan in person and in private was at least as impressive as the public figure. He was, without fail, gracious, patient, and thoughtful. He treated the people who worked for him with as much respect as he did the many world leaders with whom he interacted. He was energized by and had almost limitless faith in what he liked to call ‘the young people,’ including the students at Macalester. He bore witness to some of the worst atrocities, and dealt with some of the worst people, of our time, yet he never lost hope in the possibility for improvement in the human condition.”

Annan’s legacy will stretch onward at Macalester and far beyond, thanks in part to the ripple effect of a community motivated by his dedication to peace. That includes the new generation of students he inspired in May. “He encouraged us to move into spaces of leadership—and at first I thought he meant big-time leadership,” Kofi Ofosu says. “I thought you had to have everything set in place before you could take on leadership roles. But I learned from him that you can start in your own small way. It can be as simple as listening, as voting—that’s how progress can start. Leadership doesn’t have to be something I put aside until I’m more accomplished.”


In Annan’s Words

KOFI ANNAN remained connected to his Macalester roots, returning to campus several times as well as serving as a trustee and trustee emeritus and a member of the Institute for Global Citizenship’s global advisory board. The following reflections are from his remarks during those visits.

image of Kofi Annan with student leaders on campus in May 2018
When Annan talked with Mac students, he encouraged them to take on leadership roles. “I firmly believe that you are never too young to lead,” he said on campus in May.

“Thirty years before the end of apartheid, a decade before the civil rights movement in this country, there was a celebration of diversity throughout this student body unlike any other I have known. Macalester’s academic excellence was deeply rooted in a reverence and respect for other cultures. Students from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities lived, worked, and grew together. We were not merely greeted with tolerance; we were welcomed with warmth. I felt immediately at home.”
—SEPT. 9, 1994, CONVOCATION

“As part of its curriculum, Mac has always motivated its students to go out and work in the world beyond these campus walls. Build on the courage which that has instilled in you. Act on your innocence; explore new frontiers where older, wiser, more cautious people might not. Failure is part of success; if you don’t fail now and then, it probably means you are not pushing hard enough.

Courage does not mean lack of fear, for only the foolish are fearless; it means doing things in spite of your fear. Confront those fears, take risks for what you believe, for it is only then you will find what you are capable of; you will discover that if your intentions are good, the worst your opponents can do to you is really not that bad. Go out and make a difference in this world. And don’t forget to have some fun along the way.”
—MAY 17, 1998, COMMENCEMENT

“We all have the power to make choices; we should never doubt that. We can choose to be silent and turn away or we can step forward and take action. Here at Macalester, you have chosen to make a difference, and there is so much you can do…”
—APRIL 22, 2006, INSTITUTE FOR GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP INAUGURATION

“A good leader must have good judgment—a keen sense of what is right and what is wrong. You need discipline. You need compassion. Good leaders must also be good listeners. Above all, a good leader must also be a good follower. It’s counterintuitive, but a good leader cannot always be right. You cannot win all the time. There are people around you with ideas—and if they are good ideas and they are right, you follow them. You have to follow them for [those people] to follow you tomorrow. But not many leaders understand this. They think that’s a sign of weakness and that they need to be tough and strong. That’s not leadership.”
—MAY 7, 2018, IN CONVERSATION WITH BRIAN ROSENBERG

“The Mac experience was fundamental to what I became later in life.”
—MAY 7, 2018, INTERVIEW WITH ROSENBERG

After graduation, Kofi Annan studied at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, then joined the United Nations system the following year as a budget officer with the World Health Organization. In 1997, he was elected the UN’s seventh Secretary General, a position he used to strengthen peacekeeping initiatives, combat HIV, and launch the UN Global Compact, the world’s largest effort to promote corporate social responsibility. In 2001, the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Annan and the United Nations for revitalizing the UN and prioritizing human rights.

After concluding his tenure as Secretary-General in 2006, he continued his advocacy by serving as chair of organizations including the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the African Progress Panel, and The Elders, an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights. At the time of his death, he was the chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation, which he founded in 2007 to mobilize leaders from all sectors to overcome threats to peace, development, and human rights.


image of Kofi Annan with students on campus in May 2006
When Annan visited Mac in April 2006 to help inaugurate the new Institute for Global Citizenship, he took an impromptu stroll around campus, meeting students along the way.

Alumni on Annan

Following his death, Mac alumni shared thoughts in August via social media on Kofi Annan’s legacy.

“‘It has been said that arguing against globalization is like arguing against the laws of gravity.’ Kofi was the reason I chose to go to Macalester. Sad to see him gone.” –Alex Karevoll ’07

“Kofi Annan’s values and actions were woven into so many of our experiences at Macalester. Sad to hear of his passing, and grateful that his legacy will live on and continue to teach young people for generations to come. Those on campus—play a little extra Ping-Pong today.” –Glafira Marcon ’13

“There are many, many brilliant, talented, and remarkable Macalester alums with whom I’m proud to share an alma mater. But Mr. Annan will always be at the top of the list.” –Charles K. Youel ’91

“As an undergrad at Macalester it was the legacy of this grad that inspired me (and many others I’m sure) to study human rights.”–Shana Tabak ’00

“One of the good ones. As Macalester students, we quickly learned that true leadership looked remarkably similar to how this man conducted his life. He’ll be missed.” –Katie Eukel ’04

“His legacy of peace and international cooperation lives on in MN and every student who walks through Macalester’s doors.” –Bradley Traynor ’97

“Thank you, Kofi Annan, for your service to the world and to the Macalester community, for showing us how Mac could be our launch pads to do good in the world.” –Hillary Moses Mohaupt ’08

“RIP Kofi Annan. He spoke at [African Leadership Academy] just 3 weeks ago and shared some real wisdom. He was a true statesman, fellow Ghanaian and fellow graduate of Macalester. He will be missed.” –Fred Swaniker ’99

“So sad to see Kofi Annan, my fellow Macalester alum and UN legend, who inspired so many of us to pursue international law, has passed away. The world has lost a thoughtful soul and kind human being.” –Susan Franck ’93

“Kofi Annan was the reason I attended Macalester and spent the rest of my life studying/working on human rights, including his bold and towering role creating the @IntlCrimCourt #RomeStatute. A day to remember his humble legacy.” –Ezequiel Jimenez Martinez ’13

“RIP Kofi Annan, we have lost one of our valued elders in Africa and globally. A personal connection to him as I was only able to go to US and attend my alma mater Macalester College on a Kofi Annan scholarship. He was what all Mac students aspired to be.” –Nikki Kitikiti ’08

October 30 2018

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