In a conversation that lasted 90 minutes one of television’s greatest icons gave a blatantly honest account of her upbringing that left CBS’ irreverent Late Show host, David Letterman, stunned. In a series bearing his name, The David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series, Ball State University’s most famous graduate hosted his third celebrity conversation with media mogul and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey. Previous celebrity interviews conducted by Letterman at his alma mater included MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.
Appearing on the Muncie, Indiana campus, each celebrity was welcomed by a huge roar of screams and cheers and a standing ovation. Oprah’s was louder and longer. With the main auditorium in Emens Hall seating 3,300 plus two back-up simulcasts in Pruis Hall and the student center adding another 800 or so campus officials declared the Conversation with David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey a history-making event. It was the series’ largest crowd ever in attendance. The university gave first choice for free tickets to university students who camped out and waited overnight to get the best seats to see the TV legend. A video of students lining up and spending the night outdoors previewed the “conversation.” Bright red T-shirts identifying the event as Dave + Oprah were draped across the back of every seat in the auditorium. They were free too.
With just a small table separating two comfy upholstered chairs the larger-than-life personalities shared some never-before-heard-in-public personal details of their lives, their parents and grandparents. While Winfrey has long been very open about the physical, emotional and sexual abuse in her childhood, she gave shocking details Monday evening. Her best friend, CBS morning show anchor, Gail King, was in the front row.
Wearing a cranberry red silk dress with pumps to match and coiffed with big, long curly tresses, Oprah shared candid life stories and life lessons along with several heart-wrenching accounts of childhood abuse. One was how, at age four, she had gone to their well in rural Mississippi to fetch a bucket of water (they had no running water) and her grandmother caught her playing with her hands in the well water. She got beaten so badly that she got welts which bled and then got another beating for getting blood on her dress.
She moved at age six when her grandmother got sick to an uncaring mother in Milwaukee where she became a victim of rape at nine and of sexual abuse from ages 10 to 14. This shoved her into unruly and promiscuous behavior causing her to be shipped off at age 14 to her father in Nashville whom she first met at age nine. She quickly discovered she was pregnant and hid it for fear she would disgrace her dad and his family. Her fear forced her into labor. Her baby died two weeks later. Winfrey stated she felt her baby gave her a new life and it was God’s extraordinary way of giving her a second chance. She completely turned her life around becoming an exemplary student winning the Tennessee state high school championship for public speaking at 16 and going on to graduate from college.
Winfrey stated, “My greatest regret was not moving the needle far enough for abuse in America.” She declared she would not change anything in her life because her harsh upbringing fed her determination, gave her compassion and a true understanding of her girls who attend the 60 schools she funds in South Africa and 12 other countries located across the African continent who continue to suffer through significant family tragedies with a primary caregiver dying once a week.
After hearing Winfrey’s stories, Letterman commented that her life was “stunning” and he has “nothing to be upset about” in his own life. He described her as “smart and wise” and added that Winfrey has “overpowered” him because she sees suffering and does something about it. Her foundation gives $400 million annually to charity. She replied, “Everybody wants to be successful, but I always wanted to be significant.”
When asked why they attended, freshmen students Chey and Corey, both from Greenville, Ohio said “it’s Oprah and you know how she likes to give out free stuff.” Freshman Sarah from Grand Rapids, Michigan said, “I couldn’t not go when my dorm is across the street. My mom loves Oprah. I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I hadn’t come.”