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The Main Event: The Final Tribute

By Selena Fragassi


Nine days. Nine days was the amount of time the team at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina had to pull together one of the biggest and most honorable services of the year—the funeral and final tribute for Dr. Maya Angelou.

“She passed away May 28 and, at the time, her son was on the other side of country, but he wanted to have her services quickly,” affirms Brett Eaton, Wake Forest’s associate VP for communications & external relations who worked closely with her next of kin as well as facility staff, campus police, the special events team and media relations to pull the event together on June 7.

Dr. Angelou was not only a noted poet, author and activist but also had been on staff at the university for 30-plus years (she was actually scheduled to teach courses this fall until her untimely passing). So, Eaton says his department did not take its responsibility lightly with its role in making her final tribute memorable.

“One of the most difficult parts of the planning was deciding on the guest list and informing those individuals they were welcome to come,” says Eaton of the 5,000-person, invite-only guest list that included everyone from Oprah Winfrey to performers Lee Ann Womack and BeBe Winans and speakers Michele Obama and the Clintons. That also meant dealing with Secret Service’s requirements and the swarms of local, national and international press who wanted access to cover the festivities, which included formal services in the 22,000-person Wake Chapel and a 500-person reception at the Graylyn International Conference Center.

“On the day of the event we had 130 members of the media from 45 news organizations like CNN, NBC, AP and even Entertainment Tonight that wanted to see inside the chapel and talk to the family, so we had to manage all the requests and also respect the family’s privacy. There were logistical issues for sure but we have an incredible team and managing high-profile events like this are not new to us,” says Eaton. In fact, just two weeks prior, the university hosted Jill Abramson’s first speaking engagement after being ousted as the New York Times’ executive editor.

One thing that helped was the live streaming capabilities the university offered, allowing a greater audience than just those in attendance to experience the renowned event. “It’s a service we had already established and used for our commencements but this was the first time the live streaming was employed for a private event, and it was our largest viewership,” says Eaton, noting nearly 700,000 people tuned in after many news organizations embedded the feed on their websites.

The other huge benefit was the assistance of Oprah Winfrey’s production company HARPO that helped guide the family through important decisions and coordinated all the talent in the program as well as organizing the reception.

Internal communication amongst departments was perhaps Wake Forest’s saving grace. The Wake Chapel had already scheduled a wedding for June 7, “but no one wanted to tell the bride to move her date,” says Eaton, so together the team (which included “dozens of people”) found a way to accommodate both events at the same time.

They also were able to account for the influx of both parties’ guests by canceling undergrad courses and delaying check-ins for camps that were just beginning to start as well as staffing the quad for those checking in to receive credentials, parking passes and event tickets. The team even went as far as borrowing golf carts from the athletics department to shuttle guests. “It was a huge feat involving every department we have,” says Eaton, “but it was probably one of the most memorable events we’ve held and we made it happen.”

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