I never knew either of my grandfathers, but every night in high school, growing up in the 1980s, I came home from school and soccer practice, said my prayers, and turned on the TV for the latest news from or about two elderly men half a world away–Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Lech Walesa and Solidarity, the Palestinian shebab of the first intifada, and the Afghan mujahidin all, in their own (often flawed) ways, faced down oppression, and earned my admiration, but it was Tutu and Mandela who spoke to my personal sense of justice–a justice that could triumph against evil without conceding an inch to it or lapse into a version of it.
And Tutu was the more obvious object of admiration than Mandela. Mandela wasn’t released from prison until 1990. It was Tutu we saw each night, speaking truth to apartheid power, and reason to the rage of the crowds.
I speak and feel as though I knew and met him. I didn’t, at least not literally. But he was, in some ways, the closest thing to a grandfather I ever had, the personification of wisdom and justice we associate with an idealized grandfather figure. He was, then, just about the same age as I am now (a bit older). I’m struck by the stark contrast between his moral gravity and my moral mediocrity, but he remains a hero and a role model, and always will.