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SUBMITTED PHOTO South African leader Nelson Mandela also visited Canada in 1998. On Oct. 5 that year, he was photographed wearing a custom ceremonial garment, one of two created by the Bemidji Woolen Mills for Mandela and his wife Graca Machel. Mandela is reported to have liked the robe so well he wore it the rest of the day.

An 'awesome' experience seeing Mandela: Local educator remembers Harvard speech

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BEMIDJI — As South African leader Nelson Mandela laid in a hospital this past summer, local resident Lara Gerhardson reflected on the time she heard him speak in person.

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"It was pretty awesome," said Gerhardson, now the coordinator of the Students First program in Bemidji schools.

Gerhardson, a 1997 Bemidji High School graduate, was in her sophomore year at Harvard University when Mandela was to be conferred with an honorary degree from the school.

Gerhardson's roommate was in The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College and was to perform for Mandela during his campus visit. She offered Gerhardson a ticket.

Gerhardson figures she was among about 10,000 students who heard Mandela address the student body.

"It was really neat because even though he was to be conferred an honorary degree, he dedicated it to South Africa and other struggling nations," she recalled, in July, when Mandela was hospitalized for several months. "He talked a lot about how it wasn't an honor just for him."

She said Mandela encouraged students to go out in the world and fight injustice, to erase disparities throughout all nations.

"It was a great speech," Gerhardson said. "He was a very humble, yet relatable person."

At the time, Gerhardson said, she knew some of Mandela's history but did not fully recognize his magnitude until later in life.

While at Harvard, she met and heard from several notable people, including Dan Rather, John F. Kennedy Jr., Tommy Lee Jones and John Updike.

"Mandela trumps them all," Gerhardson said. "It was a really cool experience."

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