Top secret: The day Oprah came to Elon

Friday as I sat inside Alumni Gym at Elon University for its annual baccalaureate ceremony, I had some sympathy for my newspaper friends back at their offices in Burlington, Greensboro and Raleigh. Inside the gym a pretty big story no one saw coming emerged just before the actual ceremony began.

Without fanfare, music, entourage or announcement, arguably the most famous woman in America walked inside from the front of the small arena – through the entrance to the left of the stage. She was with a young girl and a man. All three took a seat on the front row — at the far end. Most people inside didn’t see it happen at all. By the end of the service, which was stellar by the way, several hundred people who were there had no idea they had just shared the gym with Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah at Elon

Oprah Winfrey at the Elon University baccalaureate ceremony on Friday with her leadership academy student, Nosipho Shangase, a member of the Elon Class of 2017.

Yeah, Oprah. That Oprah, the talk show Oprah, the Book Club Oprah, philanthropist Oprah, billionaire Oprah. You know, Oprah, the one who gave away all those cars — and much, much more over the years.

Fact is, I probably wouldn’t have realized it myself had my spouse not heard about Oprah’s appearance a few minutes before we left her office for the Koury Center. Still, even though my spouse knew, she wouldn’t tell me who the special guest was going to be, just that it was someone incredibly famous and that I would certainly recognize him or her. I couldn’t think of one possible name to toss out as a random guess as we walked to the baccalaureate. How big would it be? Gold shipment through Mayberry big? Oprah would be on the short list of guests that important.

Oprah, really?

I mean, of all the people who would slip quietly into Elon’s gym about the last person I expected to see was Oprah Winfrey. Even when I saw her walk in I had to ask, “Is that really who I think it is?”

The few people who did notice began to put reports of the sighting on social media. My friend and one-time colleague, reporter Natalie Allison Janicello messaged me on Facebook, “Sooo, Oprah?”

“Apparently,” I answered.

I could imagine the hubbub the appearance created back at my old newsroom. My guess is there was a lot of shouting about why Elon neglected to alert the media about a visit to campus by arguably the most famous woman in America. In my former role as cranky editor I would’ve been the loudest voice, spewing obscenities then sending a reporter and photographer on a mission to track Oprah down on campus and bring back a story – with photos – ASAP.

But like most things, it wasn’t that simple. Oprah’s appearance was a closely guarded secret that would be the envy of any U.S. presidential administration over the last 50 years, but especially so for the leaky operatives at the White House these days. Oprah asked for it to be that way. This wasn’t Elon’s decision, it was Oprah’s all the way.

And it makes sense.

Oprah was on campus to share a moment with Nosipho Shangase, who graduated Saturday with Elon’s Class of 2017. She is one of Oprah’s “daughter girls” from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Oprah pledges to be with each of her South African leadership academy students as they prepare to graduate from college. Baccalaureate was her promised time with Shangase. She left immediately after the ceremony to attend two commencement addresses for leadership academy students on Saturday. There was simply no available time to stay at Elon any longer for a chat or speech.

For Oprah and Shangase it was quick reunion and special moment. There was no time for a media circus, which an announced visit would have surely created. They met at the Elon president’s house then attended the baccalaureate and took off immediately after. It was a classy move by Oprah who didn’t want to disrupt the very emotional service or take the moment away from graduating seniors at Elon and put the spotlight on herself. It was the graduates’ day, including Shangase, a public health major who is planning to pursue a doctorate. Read the full story about her visit by University Communications here.

As I left Alumni Gym I bumped into harried Times-News reporter Bill Cresenzo who was desperate to find arguably the most famous woman in America somewhere on Elon’s campus. He was too late. By this time, she was long gone — almost as if she was never there at all. There was no interview, not even with University Communications, no media availability, no demonstrations, no hordes of fans, no autograph seekers, no hassles.

No problem.

2 thoughts on “Top secret: The day Oprah came to Elon

    • It’s not clear. The Enet story I link to has a lot of details but not that one. Typically international students find out about specific U.S. universities through meeting alumni in those countries or via a counselor at their schools.

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