Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton joined friends and family of the late poet and American civil rights icon Maya Angelou Saturday for a memorial service at Wake Forest University.
Angelou died on May 28 at her home in North Carolina at the age of 86.
The poet, author and activist had served as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest since 1982. She was planning to teach a course called “Race, Culture and Gender in the U.S. South and Beyond” in the fall.
Clinton, who like Angelou grew up in Arkansas, said at the service that her chronicles of Southern life struck a chord with him early in his career. “I knew the people she was talking about, the problems she was documenting,” Clinton said.
“Her great gift in her action-packed life is that she was always paying attention,” Clinton said. “She called our attention that the things that really matter—dignity, work, love and kindness—are things that we can share, and don’t cost anything.”
“God loaned her her voice and he decided he wanted it back for a while,” Clinton said of her death.
Winfrey, who called Angelou a “mentor, mother/sister, and friend since my early 20’s” in a statement after her death, helped to plan the memorial service. “She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life,” Winfrey said in the statement.
At the service, Winfrey fought back tears as she called Angelou her “spiritual queen mother, and everything that word implies. She was the ultimate teacher. She taught me the poetry of courage and respect.”
Winfrey met Angelou in the late 1970s, when, as a young reporter in Baltimore, she interviewed the poet and activist. They became friends and were close for the rest of Angelou’s life.
“We can be better and do better because she existed,” Winfrey added.
First Lady Michelle Obama said that Angelou’s work inspired her as a young woman, and that Angelou inspired a generation of black women to be “phenomenal right alongside her.”
“I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before,” Obama said. “Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace.”
Angelou worked with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X early on in her career as a civil rights activist, and as a poet, often wrote of black empowerment and pride.
“How desperately black girls needed that message. As a black woman I needed that message,” Obama added.
Angelou praised Obama’s “grace, her gentleness and her sense of humor” when the first lady was selected as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2013.
The service was open only to friends and family, but was livestreamed by Wake Forest. Angelou’s family has planned for additional later memorials across the country. In lieu of gifts, the family has asked for donations to the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity through Wake Forest.