The day after Nelson Mandela died, Teresa Ann Barnes was thinking about two "Happy Birthday" letters, written by a 9- and 10-year-old.
"Children have a way of seeing through the nonsense to the heart of the matter," the University of Illinois professor said Friday.
The letters were written as school projects — addressed to "Mr. Mandela" — by her son Lewis and a friend named Sizwe Peter who was living with the Barnes family. Their home: South Africa. The time: one of the most transformational periods in world history.
"Dear Mr. Mandela," Lewis' letter begins, "I thank you for helping this country to realize that people's skin color is not what you judge somebody by."
"It is like a father that we love and admire you," his friend wrote, "for it is like a father that you teach us to be strong and stand firm for what we believe is fair."
As similar sentiments poured in from around the world Friday, Professor Barnes reflected upon her nearly 25 years living in Africa. She went there to study and teach — first in Zimbabwe, then South Africa. She left with a Ph.D. in African economic history, two handwritten notes she considers to be among her most prized possessions, and two sons who grew up to see Mandela's homeland as their homeland.
Barnes' son Lonnie was born in South Africa the year Mandela ascended to power. Her son Lewis was born in neighboring Zimbabwe on Feb. 11, 1990 — the day Mandela was set free from prison after 27 years.
"In my mind, Lewis and Nelson Mandela are always connected," the professor said.
Four years after Lewis' birth, Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president. Rivals who had persecuted him under apartheid expected retribution. Instead, Mandela saw national reconciliation as his foremost duty.
Lewis is 23 now and has only a vague recollection of writing the letter. But the part where he thanked Mandela "for being the best president ever" still rings true.
"He was a symbol of something that was right about South Africa," Lewis said Friday.
He still considers Mandela to be an enormous influence in his life. It's no surprise then how Teresa Ann Barnes' son spends much of his time these days — as an intern with a human rights organization, Scholars At Risk, in New York.
"They are linked so much to that history," she said.