As Nelson Mandela fought racial oppression in South Africa, his influence was felt around the world, including here in Maine, where the state university system, legislators and ordinary citizens felt moved to exert their own pressure on the South African government to end apartheid.

In the early days of the anti-apartheid movement, the University of Maine System trustees voted in 1982 to sell all of the system’s investments – $1.9 million worth – in companies that were doing business with South Africa.

“It was one of the major success stories in the United States. We were one of the first 10 universities in the whole United States to completely divest,” said Doug Allen, a University of Maine philosophy professor who led the committee that studied apartheid and made the case to divest.

The trustees’ vote came eight years before Mandela was released from prison, where he spent 27 years for his anti-apartheid work.

Maine’s “little Ivies” of Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges later made moves to divest, stripping some South African investments from their portfolios.

The widespread divestiture in South Africa is credited with pressuring the government to dismantle the apartheid system.

Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.

“There was a special grace about the man when you were in his presence,” said Jon Jennings of Cumberland, who said he met Mandela in 1991 when he was an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. “He was very much a person who understood his place in history. He radiated a joyful and peaceful presence.”

Mandela had been released from prison the previous year and was touring the United States. Jennings said he had a special team jersey made up for Mandela, with his name on the back, and presented it to him as a gift.

When Jennings visited Mandela in 2003 during a business trip to Johannesburg, he asked Mandela if he still had the jersey. Mandela replied that he did, Jennings said, and he was invited to eat dinner with Mandela and his family at their home.

“It’s not often that you get to meet a true saint. He not only participated in history, he moved history,” said Jennings, who is now South Portland’s assistant city manager. “It’s a sad day for their nation and the world. They lost their George Washington.”

Former state Rep. Gerald Talbot of Portland, Maine’s first black legislator, visited South Africa in 1998, when Mandela was president. As Talbot stood beside a road in a large crowd, Mandela and his security detail passed.

“He was walking toward us and then he stopped. I reached out for his hand and he shook it. I was the only person he shook hands with. I can’t explain why, but I am proud of that moment,” Talbot said.

For Talbot, a longtime activist, there was no question that he would throw his energy into fighting apartheid.

“It was in South Africa, but it was still a cruelty to humans. I had to do something. It’s like civil rights – human rights – it’s what you have to do,” he said.

“Nelson Mandela will always be alive in someone’s heart and mind because of what he was able to accomplish in his life,” Talbot said.

Doug Curtis Jr. of Rockland, a retired Army colonel, never met Mandela, but he did visit the prison in South Africa where Mandela was held for more than two decades.

In 2008, Curtis visited Robben Island, a waterbound prison seven miles from Cape Town where political prisoners were held. The guides, all former guards and prisoners, showed him Mandela’s cell, an 8-foot-by-7-foot box with a bucket and a blanket on the floor.

Curtis also was shown the quarry where Mandela and other prisoners were forced to break rocks. On the day that Mandela was released, he picked up a rock and set it down. The other prisoners, watching him leave, picked up rocks and made a rock pile that still stands.

“It was a symbolic gesture of nonviolence. That was so powerful,” Curtis said.

Curtis said South Africa and the world lost a noble and wise figure Thursday. “He was a combination of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln,” Curtis said.

PROTESTING APARTHEID THROUGH DIVESTITURE

By the mid-1980s, several Maine companies had cut ties to South Africa’s apartheid government, and lawmakers were under pressure to act.

Several bills were proposed, two of them by Rep. Harlan Baker, D-Portland, to completely divest Maine’s trust fund and the Maine State Retirement System. Baker’s bill initially failed, then passed when he reintroduced it the next year, in 1987.

Ivan Suzman of Portland, a political activist who died last year, was active in the state’s anti-apartheid movement. He founded the Maine Project for South Africa and fought to end the state retirement system’s investments in South Africa.

Some politicians and university leaders supported partial measures intended to put economic pressure on South Africa’s apartheid leadership. As years passed, many came to support full divestment. Among them was Gov. Joseph Brennan.

“It is clear the Botha government (of South Africa) intends to do nothing to give human rights to blacks,” Brennan said in the fall of 1986, throwing his support behind full divestiture, even though there was no state law requiring it.

That prompted the state treasurer to sell $264,000 in state investments in Beatrice Co. and other businesses. The treasurer mentioned the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 and their influence on the movement in justifying why Maine was divesting even a small amount.

It wasn’t until 1987 that Maine adopted a law divesting all state pension funds from companies that were doing business with South Africa.

“Those days were part of a movement for justice and a cause that was far from our home but not far from our hearts,” said Herb Adams of Portland, a local historian and former state legislator who introduced the divestiture bill. “It was part and parcel of the feeling of fair play and equal justice which makes us Mainers.”

Adams said he was visited by the ambassador from the apartheid government of South Africa.

“That is how desperate they were,” Adams said, “that they would come to Maine to talk to a lone legislator and try to argue him out of his own opinions and principles.”

During that era, several Maine businesses stopped doing business with South Africa.

L.L. Bean stopped selling items made in South Africa, including seat covers, and Shop ‘n Save supermarkets stopped carrying Granny Smith apples from South Africa. West Point Pepperell, which ran a textile mill in Biddeford, sold its minority ownership in a South African company.

DIVESTITURE TOOK YEARS

The fight to divest the University of Maine System took years, Allen said.

“(The anti-apartheid movement) dominated about 10 years of my life,” he said.

The trustees initially resisted, saying they had a fiduciary responsibility and could not even consider moral issues.

“So this was a big challenge to us. We made the case that that was correct, but it was not an absolute,” Allen said. “We asked them, would they have invested in Nazi Germany in munition plants? And of course they said no.”

At that point, he said, activists were able to draw the parallel to apartheid, and eventually gain the trustees’ support.

Although the trustees voted to recommend that the University of Maine Foundation also divest, it was a staggered victory. The university system divested its own portfolio immediately, but the foundation, which operates independently, refused to divest its roughly $1.2 million investment in South African firms. That made it a target of anti-apartheid protests on campus, Allen said.

After years of protests, the foundation eventually divested, he said.

The emotional high point for Allen during the fight, he said, was meeting Mandela in New York City.

Allen was among about 100 anti-apartheid activists who gathered in a church to meet Mandela before an appearance at Yankee Stadium.

“I still remember his words,” Allen said. “He said, ‘Tonight I’ll be at Yankee Stadium, and it will be a big celebration … but I know who my true friends were, who was standing with me all those years.’ You can imagine how moving it was. Everyone was in tears.”

Adams said many people in Maine worked on the anti-apartheid movement.

“It was the accumulation of small places like the actions of the state of Maine and North Dakota that were part of a powerful worldwide effort,” Adams said.

“Small places took a principled stand, and together we made a huge difference in the struggle against the apartheid system.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:ngallagher@pressherald.com

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This story was corrected at 3:34 p.m. on Dec. 6 to reflect that a divestiture bill by Rep. Harlan Baker, D-Portland, initially failed, then was passed the following year, in 1987.