CHAPEL HILL — The Rev. Maj-Britt Johnson was having lunch with Ashley Osment last month when Osment said something that made the minister grab her napkin and start writing.
She was in the final stages of an ovarian cancer that had spread to her lungs. Yet Osment felt strangely happy, happier in fact than at any time since she was pregnant with her daughter, Sunny.
"When I was pregnant, people were prettier," Osment told Johnson. "I felt protective of every human being. It feels that way again now that I'm dying. People are precious."
Johnson told that story to hundreds of mourners today at a memorial service for Osment, a civil rights attorney, activist and mother, at the Chapel Hill Bible Church.
Osment made Johnson think of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." The "myself" in the title does not mean the narrator, Johnson said.
"It's about having an 'I' and an 'I am' that includes everyone and all of God's creations," she said.
Osment, she said, "was someone who was able to make herself a very large I."
Osment, runner thin with corn-blonde hair, grew up in Sylva, N.C. Her father was a Southern Baptist minister. Her mother taught her children to love and play mountain music. Osment's brother Joey opened the service with a plaintive "Amazing Grace," wiping his eyes as he walked across the stage and opened his fiddle case.
Osment studied history at UNC, met and later married civil rights lawyer Al McSurely, and became a lawyer herself, taking on state agencies and the university system in discrimination cases the couple dedicated themselves to over a 19-year partnership. When she died Friday night, at age 46, Osment was senior attorney for educational advocacy at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, a job she had said "I was born to do."
Most lawyers are good at something, said Jack Boger, dean of the law school. They are compassionate, or they are technicians, experts at case law. Osment was both and more. She was direct, focused, trustworthy. She built coalitions among groups that might normally not work together. And with resegregation fears resurfacing in nearby Wake County and elsewhere, she died too soon, Boger said.
"We have such a great need today," he said. "This was, and is, a legal and moral cause her whole life seemed to be preparing Ashley for."
How could she be taken when so much remains to be done? he asked.
Her family, including her stepchildren, described their more personal loss.
Walker Swain-McSurely, her step-son, remembered the diminutive Osment's physical strength: arm wrestling, playing basketball, running five miles a day. He remembered Beatles and Beach Boys cassettes in the car on the way to the beach, her teaching him the fiddle. "I remember her filling me with confidence," he said.
And he remembered crying, as a boy, when he learned she was pregnant with her own child and feared she might not have as much room in her life left for him.
"I couldn't imagine life as a 12-year-old without her admiration," he said.
Osment was born in 1963, two months after four black girls were killed in a Birmingham church bombing, two days before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, shares that birth year, a time when U.S. troops in Vietnam had grown six-fold, he said. He called Osment a soldier. Even her name, Ashley, was once reserved for male children and comes from a wood called ash, "the choice of builders for useful things," Barber said.
Even from her bed, Osment continued to advise her husband and Barber on legal strategy, the NAACP leader said, drawing laughs when he told the crowd how he would hear her shouting instructions in the background when he would speak to McSurely on the phone: "No, that's not right!" Barber was preparing for a speech at Bennett College when he asked Osment what she would tell the students there.
"I would tell them 'Tear down these gates,'" Osment told the preacher. The gates that separate people by race, income and sexuality, he said.
"Tell them they were born to storm the gates and tear them down."
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