Jennifer Brooks
See more of the story

What, a student once asked Kofi Annan, was your most memorable experience during your years at Macalester College?

Annan — diplomat, statesman, United Nations secretary-general, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and proud member of the Macalester class of ’61 — looked around the crowded college auditorium and gave a two-word response.

“Ping-Pong.”

Annan died last month at age 80, leaving his mark on international diplomacy and his name on Macalester’s Institute for Global Citizenship. He left another mark at the St. Paul campus: his signature, scrawled in fading Sharpie, on the side of a Ping-Pong table.

“Kofi Annan Ping-Pong Table,” notes a wall plaque in the Leonard Center Athletic and Wellness Complex. “A salute to Kofi Annan, ’61, in recognition of the table tennis championship he won in his senior year.”

Technically, Annan came in second in that tournament. And he had help.

Betty Rudberg Bole held on to the silver medal she and Annan won that week in 1960 all her life. She passed away late last year, but her husband, Ron Bole, still has that medal in his curio cupboard. And in his basement is the family Ping-Pong table, where Betty and Kofi practiced.

“Everyone laughed” when Annan told the students that one of his most memorable college experiences revolved around Ping-Pong, Bole said. The audience, gathered a few decades ago, had been “thinking he was going to come up with something intellectual.”

Annan “went on to explain that he was in a tournament at Macalester and that was an interesting social and cultural experience for him,” said Bole, who ran on the Macalester track team with Annan.

Even back then, he said, there was something about the young exchange student from Ghana.

“He just had a manner about him,” Bole said. “Soft-spoken, able to make friends easily, good listener.”

A Ping-Pong table isn’t Annan’s most important legacy at Macalester. But college President Brian Rosenberg, who played a few games with Annan on his namesake table, said it was a fitting tribute to a man who took many things seriously, but not himself.

“He was and will always be a source of enormous pride” to Macalester, Rosenberg said. “What he did was so clearly an embodiment of the college’s mission [of] internationalism and service to society. The work he did was our mission, carried out into the world at the very, very highest level.”

On his final visit to his alma mater, in May this year, Annan autographed a pair of Ping-Pong paddles the school is planning to mount in the athletic center. But when he sat down to talk with Rosenberg and the students, his talk was a thoughtful, hourlong discussion of leadership and public service.

“It all started here in 1959 when I was a student,” he said, following the dedication of the newly renamed Kofi Annan Institute for Global Citizenship. “The values and lessons I picked up here stayed with me throughout my entire life.”

Annan and his wife, Nane, stayed in guest housing on campus and made a point of stopping by the kitchen every day to thank the student workers who made their breakfast, Rosenberg said. Before they left town, they asked to meet the custodian who cleaned their room so they could thank him.

“Kofi was consistently thoughtful and gracious. He treated people exactly the way you would want to be treated,” Rosenberg said. “It didn’t matter whether you were a head of state or the person who did the custodial work. ... He was remarkably undemanding and unimpressed with himself.”

But he made an impression on others even 50 or 60 years ago. Bole remembers a story he heard from a friend who drove around the country with Annan as part of the college’s Ambassadors for Friendship program. The friend drove Annan down to southern Minnesota and introduced him to his family.

“My friend remembers what his parents said after they left,” Bole said. “They said, ‘That man is going to go somewhere.’ They could sense that there was something unique about Kofi that would propel him to something. They didn’t know then what it would be.”

On one of Annan’s visits back to Macalester, Ron and Betty Bole made their way backstage to say hello to their old friend. Betty brought the silver Ping-Pong medal and they reminisced about their glory days in mixed doubles table tennis.

Betty’s family lived just five houses west of campus, on Lincoln Avenue, and in their basement was a Ping-Pong table. Betty and Kofi would go there to practice. If he timed it right, Bole remembered, the future U.N. secretary-general would come upstairs just in time for a supper invitation from Betty’s mother.

“So he would stay and eat and they ate well, I’m sure, because I ate well there for many years,” Bole said.

The Ping-Pong table in the old campus rec center, where Annan won silver, was probably tossed out years ago, but the Boles kept the practice table in the family.

“We still play on that table,” Bole said with a laugh. “The plaque should really be on that table.”

In the coming months and years, Macalester will find other ways to honor the life and legacy of Kofi Annan.

If you’d like to do the same, you can share a game with someone who needs a laugh or share a meal with someone who needs the company. Like Ping-Pong legend Kofi Annan, you could treat people the way you would want to be treated.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks