Tutu is a man of empathy and moral ardor. He also has some funny jokes.

Desmond Tutu, a black Johannesburg township, led a packed Soweto church service on Christmas Day 1980s. This was the fulcrum for protest against white racist rule of South Africa. A family from America -- mine -- was able to find standing room at the back.

Tutu is a man of empathy and moral ardor. He also has some funny jokes.

We were one of the few white people present in the congregation. As we shake hands on Tutu's steps, he makes a joke. It was something like this: "So, it really IS a white Christmas."

In tense, dusty Soweto, Tutu was able to invoke the Irving Berlin song "White Christmas", which Bing Crosby famously sang. He couldn't resist making a pun about race in a country that was suffering from the anguish of apartheid (the system of white minority dominance that was abolished in 1994).

It has snowed in Johannesburg every now and again, but not at Christmas, which falls in Southern Hemisphere's winter.

Tutu, who was 90 years old, died Sunday. He was remembered as a Nobel Laureate, a spiritual guide, and a champion for the anti-apartheid struggle. Barack Obama gave Tutu high praise for his efforts to fight injustice wherever he saw.

The former U.S. President also spoke of the activist's "impish sense humor." This is Desmond Tutu, the kind, funny, and gracious man behind the icon, whom I and many others remember.

To be able to see Tutu close up was to enjoy his rollercoaster laughter, his wide-eyed expressions, his flawlessly enunciated remarks and to soak in his joy and warmth. He was a dancer, and he loved to dance in church. As he got older, he used a cane to help him get up on his feet.

His personality seemed to reflect the best of human nature, down to the smallest details. He was a small example of humanity, he showed empathy and a willingness to listen.

Through the dark times in South Africa, he maintained that attitude, even though he was frustrated by the state's dehumanization of policies and violence from white-controlled security forces. Apartheid was a scourge he called "evil" and which he still feels bitter about.

Some people were not fans. His moral ardor ran up against realpolitik. His idealized vision for a 'rainbow nation', a country of tolerance and racial harmony, is in direct contradiction to the current social and economic problems in South Africa.

He reached out to people, found humanity in them and always reached out. Participants were asked to take photos of themselves in advance of the 2015 St. George's Cathedral service. I was able to watch as Tutu walked around the congregation asking everyone to tell a bit about themselves.

My father, who was a South African journalist for The Associated Press, was reporting on Christmas Day that Tutu riffed upon Bing Crosby. My parents moved to Stockholm in 1989. A postcard with Tutu's scrawl was delivered to my parents a few months before they left.

''Go well. He wrote, "Thanks for your outstanding service." We will miss you. We will be sure to see you in Sweden. God Bless You.

I was a journalist in my own right and worked also for the AP in South Africa. This included covering Tutu’s post-apartheid comments on corruption and other challenges as well as his hospitalizations due to prostate cancer, which afflicted him for almost a quarter of a century.

I can still recall the time he came to our Johannesburg home for dinner. He didn't stay long. He was easygoing and charming.

He sent us another postcard. The front featured an elephant, while the back contained a note that could be used as both a bread-and butter note or as an unintended valedictory. It was written by a remarkable man, who died too young at 90.

He wrote, "Just an insufficient note to thank you for your kind hospitality." I enjoyed my stay and was sad to have to leave so early. God bless you.

It was signed simply "Desmond".

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