Ceremony honors former USC president
Standing at a lectern nearby a bicycle wreathed in flowers, USC President Harris Pastides recounted his last phone call with his predecessor, Andrew Sorensen, four days before his death on April 17 at the age of 72.
"You laughed when you asked me to not mess things up, and I know that you were only half joking," Pastides said. "I don't know why I called your cellphone again through tears when I learned that God had called you last Sunday morning. Perhaps, I just hoped to hear your voice, maybe asking me to leave a message, but I swear I don't know what I would have said."
Pastides said his "irrational" call was given purpose when Donna, Sorensen's widow, answered the phone and comforted him.
This was but one example of many poignant stories shared by Sorensen's friends and colleagues to a crowd of Carolina community members, including Donna Sorensen and one of Sorensen's sons, Ben, at a tribute to him held Tuesday morning in the Koger Center. All 10 speakers lamented the loss of the bowtie-wearing, bicycle-riding, trumpet-playing, sermon-preaching man who served as the 27th president of USC from 2002-2008. But few of their stories were sad.
Tommy Preston, Jr., who served as USC's student body president from 2006-2007 and worked for Sorensen for a year after graduating, developed a close relationship with Sorensen, who referred to him as his third son. Sporting a bowtie in honor of his late mentor – Preston said he usually hates bowties and that Sorensen always had to tie his for him – Preston shared a tale about his trip with Sorensen to see then-Sen. Barack Obama at his campaign event at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Preston said they were in an SUV with lights on it and that he was in the back because Sorensen always insisted on sitting in the front passenger's side seat. Preston said they noticed people were waving at them and seemed very excited as they rode by.
"Eventually, we realized that everyone thought I was Barack Obama," Preston said. "So, without missing a beat, Dr. Sorensen leans back and says 'Roll down the window a little and stick out your hand and wave.' And you can see the crowd cheering because they're so excited and we're just sitting in the car laughing."
Again and again, Tuesday's speakers highlighted Sorensen's intense work ethic, commitment to equality, love for students, faith in God and lifelong devotion to his wife. Ben Sorensen provided the closing remarks on behalf of the family. In describing his energetic and life-loving father, he continually pointed out things that got his dad's heart pumping.
"The morning God called him back, he got a chance to go for a bike ride." Ben said. "His plans for the day, as he was telling my mom, were 'I'm going to go to church, going to go to the office and I'm going to come home and have lunch with you.' And those were three things that got his heart pumping."
But as the crowd stood to sing the alma mater with the GameChords, a male a cappella quartet, at the close of the ceremony, there were still many Sorensen memories left unshared.
"Andrew, I'm reluctant to tell the people here too many of these secrets, because I want some of them to remain just between us," Pastides had said at the close of his speech. "I know that's a bit selfish, but I also think that secrets between people can still work when they are as far apart as we are now."