CNN Heroes

‘God, I don’t mind if I die now’: Desmond Tutu, in his own words

Editor’s Note: My Hero is a series profiling remarkable people around the world who have touched the lives of anchors and correspondents at CNN. Discover more over at CNN Heroes.

CNN  — 

“I first saw and encountered Desmond Tutu in person when he came to my school,” CNN’s Robyn Curnow recalls.

It was the late 1980s and townships were burning in South Africa. Apartheid’s death throes were in full swing, violent and bloody, yet here was Archbishop Tutu, Nobel peace laureate and activist, in the chapel of Curnow’s school.

“He still took the time to come out and speak to a bunch of teenage girls in the suburbs,” she marvels. The voice of a liberation movement, who unlike many of his peers was not in jail, nor in exile, Tutu was out to spread the word of an inclusive, equal society that at the time still lived beyond the horizon for South Africa.

“The man that I listened to then was the same that I ended up speaking to and interviewing over the next few decades.”

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Desmond Tutu: Why "The Arch" continues to inspire
02:41 - Source: CNN

Curnow’s inspiration, her choice for CNN Heroes’ My Hero series, is now Archbishop Emeritus Tutu, having retired from public life. Perhaps unsurprisingly he remains a firebrand and staunch defender of human rights, continuing to advocate with wit and his trademark sense of humor.

The CNN anchor met Tutu again on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2011. She remembers it as a surprisingly intimate affair for a man of such stature – a towering figure once described as “the smallest giant I’ve ever met” by Irish musician Bob Geldof.

“A lot of what sticks with you with Desmond Tutu when you’re interviewing him is his laugh, his infectious sense of humor, his ability to make a joke of things,” says Curnow.

“He has a positive energy that defies suffering, and he knows that he comes from a place where pain and suffering are probably more common, but he chooses joy.”

An orator able to sugar the bitterest of truths, Tutu knows how to turn a phrase. Pithy and profound, uplifting or eviscerating, when Tutu speaks, the world listens. Scroll through the gallery above to hear more from the man South Africa calls “The Arch.”