For days before Nelson Mandela arrived in Boston on his 1990 US tour, Madison Park High School in Roxbury crackled with anticipation. When the day of Mandela’s visit finally arrived, students lucky enough to be in the audience packed into a stifling gym hours ahead of time to stake out their spot.
Celestino DePina was there in the roaring crowd, a 16-year-old who had come to Boston two years earlier from his native Cape Verde and who looked to the South African leader as a hero. Seeing Mandela, free from prison after 27 years, was an indelible, inspiring experience, he said.
“It really was a stunning moment,” he said Friday. “I remember it to this day. People were lined up outside the auditorium, just to get a glimpse.”
The day after Mandela’s death, those who met the South African leader on his famous Boston visit looked back with affection, saying his speeches left a lasting impression.
More than two decades later, DePina now teaches history at Brighton High School, a career he traces to Mandela’s speech that June day in Roxbury.
In his address, Mandela stressed the importance of education, saying he was “deeply concerned” so many students were dropping out of school.
“This is a very disturbing situation, because the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow,” he told the students. He urged students to “try as much as possible to remain in school.”
“Because education is the most powerful weapon which we can use,” he said to cheers.
For DePina, that message stuck. He studied hard in high school and at Boston College, then decided to go into teaching.
“He inspired me to do something where I could help other people,” he said. “I thought teaching was a way to empower our youth, and once I started, I fell in love with it.”
DePina said Mandela’s death has reminded him of that visit, and how Mandela’s opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa changed the world. On Friday, DePina took time to talk about Mandela to his students, many of whom knew little about him.
“I told them he fought for freedom,” he said.
At Madison Park High School, a moment of silence was held in Mandela’s memory Friday. Joao Gomes, a guidance counselor at the school, said some students sought him out during the day to learn more about Mandela. “To them it’s ancient history,” he said.
Gomes was a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1990 when he heard that Mandela was coming to Madison Park, where Gomes had gone to high school. He was not about to miss a chance to see him in person.
“Finally, apartheid was coming down,” he said. “It was an exciting moment.”
Like DePina, Gomes recalled the electricity in the crowd and how thrilling it was to see Mandela in person.
“It was just an amazing day,” he said. “It was one of those days that stay with you.”
Gomes became an educator, too, believing there “was no better place to make change.” He returned to his old high school and often thinks of Mandela’s famous quotation: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
For Ilyas Bhatti, commissioner of the Metropolitan District Commission in 1990, Mandela’s visit followed weeks of intense planning. The agency was in charge of security for Mandela’s speech at the Hatch Shell on Boston’s Esplanade, which drew a crowd of some 250,000.
“I’ve never been so nervous as on that day,” Bhatti recalled. “But it turned out to be a magnificent event. I often say the highlight of my career at the MDC was the day Nelson Mandela came to Boston.”
It was a joyous crowd, Bhatti recalled, and no arrests were made, remarkable for a crowd that size.
Bhatti, now a professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, met Mandela as he arrived at the rally. He remembers it vividly.
“He looked right into my eyes and said, ‘Very pleased to meet you,’” he recalled. “The sincerity and genuineness of the words are still in my mind.”