In 2004, just a few months before Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with cancer, she made an unannounced visit to UNC-Chapel Hill. I was a political science student that spring, enrolled in a course on North Carolina politics. The class was made up of 30 leaders of campus organizations who were considered to be future leaders.
When we arrived that afternoon, Mrs. Edwards was standing in the front of the class. I knew very little of her, other than that she was married to U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who at the time was pushing for the Democratic nomination for presidency.
Given the amount of campaign stops she had likely completed that week, she could have delivered a stock speech about why her husband deserved our votes. She could even have publicized the event and turned it into a massive rally. But instead, she offered an intimate glimpse of what it was like to be on the campaign trail and, in the process, how to hold on to what you value most.
Mrs. Edwards was incredibly candid and upbeat about what she considered to be daily challenges along the way. She talked about finding success as a female bankruptcy attorney and the constant fight to prove her competence and talent as a woman. She spoke about how the political process reminded her of that struggle, with the television media at times preferring to talk about her weight rather than the substance of her speeches.
She discussed the goal of maintaining some semblance of normalcy for her young family and balancing the campaign with her responsibilities as a mother—even if that required taking a red-eye flight home to hold a child with the flu. She explained the importance of keeping a sense of humor and perspective during the process, which she illustrated with an anecdote about 4-year-old Jack, who once told a crowd he had to potty.
My most vivid memory of that afternoon was her response when a classmate asked if there were any policy differences between her and Sen. Edwards. She confessed the major difference was that she supported gay rights. She said one of the hardest parts of campaigning was striking a balance between explaining her husband's stance on the issue while staying true to her own beliefs.
That moment was pivotal to me. Prior to that, I could not recall an instance when I heard an adult outside the university support my right to marry. I couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the hope that one day, things would be different.
I left class that day with a glimpse of what it takes to be a truly decent person; the significance of being there for your children and partner, the selfless duty to give back to your community and the importance of standing up for what you believe in.
Elizabeth Edwards executed all of those talents with grace and more, and I am forever grateful for that priceless lesson from her.
Michael Gagnon worked as the Indy's promotions manager from 2007–2008.