It's quite possible that Timothy Phiri owes his life to Nelson Mandela.
In 1988, Phiri was one of more than 100 rebel soldiers arrested in South Africa for their role in a failed coup attempt in the tribal homeland of Bophuthatswana. Phiri was later sentenced to death.
But in 1994 he was freed by Mandela, then South Africa's president. Eventually, Phiri went to work for Mandela as the secretary of tribal leadership.
Phiri was one of many whose thoughts turned to Mandela on Thursday after the Nobel Peace Prize winner died at 95 after a long illness.
Phiri's son, Obakeng Phiri of Stamford, said Mandela remained a tremendous influence on his father, even after the family moved to the United States in 1997.
"(My father) always spoke great things about him," Obakeng Phiri, 28, said earlier this year. "He said he was gentle. He was a proponent for civil justice. (My father) saw him as a person who represented the greater good."
Timothy Phiri now lives in the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester, Pa. His son said the impact of Mandela on their family hasn't lessened with time and distance.
Obakeng Phiri said his father's dedication to politics and civil justice has inspired him to take an interest in such issues. In 2012, the younger Phiri volunteered with President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
The Rev. David Spollett, pastor of First Congregational Church in Fairfield, said he never met Mandela, but always admired his strength and spirit of forgiveness.
"I was personally struck by the incredible grace of his life," Spollett said. "It amazed me that he responded to the grave injustice of apartheid with a spirit of peace and reconciliation."
Others remembering Mandela included the Rev. Robert W. Perry, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Stamford. Perry said he met Mandela when the leader spoke in Washington, D.C. Perry was a guest of then-U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, who introduced the two men.
"We had a rather lengthy conversation," Perry recalled.
One of the things the men discussed was the school that Union Baptist had recently built in South Africa. It turned out the school was right next to the place where Mandela was born. Throughout their talk, Perry was struck by Mandela's kindness.
"He was a very warm person with great charisma," he said. "He just talked to me as if the two of us had known each other all of our lives." Read Full Article
Greenwich resident Joseph Verner Reed met Mandela in 1990, when he was serving as chief of protocol in President George H.W. Bush's cabinet. It was months after the future South African president's release from Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned for 27 years. Reed escorted Mandela and his wife to the Oval Office for a brief meeting with the president.
"Nelson Mandela will be remembered as one of the greatest men in history," Reed said Thursday. "He was a man of enormous personal integrity and highest honor."
His ordeal in prison left Mandela embittered, Reed said, but putting that bitterness aside was one of many courageous acts he made while leading the nation to its first free election and reconciliation.
"He was a remarkable man," Reed said.
Greenwich native Ted Powers, who was studying in South Africa earlier this year as a postdoctoral fellow in the Human Economy Program at the University of Pretoria, said Mandela's impact on the nation continued even after his presidency.
Reached by email, Powers said that since Mandela's departure from political office in 1999, he had served as a "symbolic `father of the nation' and moral authority in South Africa.
"Unlike the leaders of many African liberation movements, Mandela stood down after only one term as president. This was a calculated decision that put the interests of the country -- in this case the solidification of the democratic denouement -- above any personal ambitions," Powers said.
Given that Mandela had been sick, and largely withdrawn from public life for the past few years, his death did not come as a shock to many.
Mandela's "symbolic relevance" will continue to grow stronger, Powers predicted.
"As South Africa nears its 20th year of democracy, society has begun to look back and take stock of what has been accomplished since the end of apartheid and what remains to be done," he said. "In doing so, Mandela's grace, humility and leadership have come to be appreciated even more."
Staff writer Justin Pottle contributed to this report.