In the years during which I was a member of the committee to advise the Emperor of Ethiopia on the development of Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa, the committee met with him from time to time. The meetings were held in his palace, a structure approximately the size of the White House, or so it seemed to me. It was situated in a park which was also the home of a number of lions, the symbol of power in Africa. At each of our visits, we reported to him formally on our observations, and then we met at least once with him at his request when he was in the United States on an unofficial visit. The Emperor understood English but preferred to speak to us informally in French and when one of the members of our committee demurred, pleading his inability to carry on a conversation in French, the Emperor expressed some surprise and said, “Why can’t you speak in French? You are an educated man.”
He was small in stature and rather delicate in physical structure. Typically when we met with him he would be dressed in a well-tailored Western suit made in France and a French shirt with a starched collar. If our report was to be made to him formally, we would be received at his palace which was guarded at its entrance by two cheetahs. He would be seated at the end of a long, ornate room that was his audience chamber. Members of his cabinet and staff sat at his left and visitors to be presented were directed to his right. Some member of our group would make our report, which would be translated to him in the official court language, Amharic. After the translation, he would reply to us in Amharic, promptly translated to us. Protocol having been satisfied, the Emperor would invite us to come up one or two at a time for a personal conversation with him. This was in the 1960s when there was considerable student unrest in the United States. Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California at Berkeley, was a member of our group, and on one such occasion Clark and I were discussing student demonstrations at Haile Selassie University with His Majesty. The Emperor observed that such activities were a part of growing up and had to be tolerated if at all possible in a university. Then he looked at Clark Kerr and with a twinkle in his eye he said, “I understand you have had considerable experience in dealing with student rioting and unrest at your university.” Clark was so surprised, as was I, that the Emperor would have knowledge of that distant stir that it was a moment or two before Clark could respond—an unusual pause for one so articulate!
While we were sitting with the Emperor, I happened to glance down and was startled to notice that he was wearing elevator shoes. This was the first time that I had thought about his being small in stature. His presence was so regal and commanding in every respect, one did not think of his physical stature. Then, although he had been emperor for nearly fifty years and took pride in being a direct descendant of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and though he was at the height of his popularity, he apparently was just as conscious as any other short man would be of his height. Even emperors are subject to a human frailty like vanity.
I shall always remember a particular scene in which he played a part. The Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches was holding its meeting in Addis Ababa during one of my visits there. The conference opened with a service in the great Coptic Cathedral. For the most part the participants in the service were the representatives and officers of the Council of Churches, many of them bishops or other high dignitaries in the churches that were members of the Council, including the Greek Orthodox Church, the church in Lebanon, the Coptic Church, and Protestant denominations in the United States and Europe. The procession opening the service was one of the most colorful I have ever seen: the bishops and archbishops paraded down the center aisle followed by mace bearers and others with the paraphernalia of station and allegiance. In accordance with protocol, since the Coptic Church of Ethiopia was the official host and the Emperor was the nominal head of the Coptic Church, he brought up the end of the procession. I remember the splendor of all that preceded him and yet, when he moved down the aisle at the very end of the procession, he seemed to tower above all the others. It would not have been necessary to tell anybody who he was. By his presence, his bearing, his dignity, his serenity, he was truly King of Kings, the Lion of Judah, the Emperor of Ethiopia.