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Princess Diana’s visit to Northwestern remembered on eve of royal wedding

Diana’s memory lives in hearts as alumna Meghan Markle weds her son, Prince Harry
Two young girls hand flowers to Princess Diana

EVANSTON - Many at Northwestern University remember the magic and special moments of the 1996 visit by Britain’s Princess Diana, most vividly the bright purple Versace gown she wore to a charity gala at the Field Museum, where then President Henry Bienen escorted her.

But for two young girls who waited on the Evanston campus to give her flowers when she passed them June 4, 1996, the memory of a real, down-to-earth princess leaning down to say “Hello” is a story they have carried with them to this day — and one they will always treasure.

On the eve of the royal wedding of Northwestern alumna Meghan Markle and Princess Diana’s son, Prince Harry, Northwestern community members are remembering the  princess and her impact in that long ago visit — and making the connection to the new generation.

“Diana was the epitome of class, very personable, and she cared deeply for the common man,” said Madeleine McGonigle, who was 4 at the time, when she and her sister, Emily, 3, ran up to greet Princess Di. “It was a dream becoming reality to meet her.  I remember yelling, ‘Princess! Princess!’ — trying to get her attention — and she turned and came over to say hello to my sister Emily and me, and we gave her nosegays (small, sweet-scented bouquets), a very traditional thing to do when seeing royalty.”

The two blond girls both wore purple jackets that day as they waited near Annie May Swift Hall with their father, Andrew McGonigle, then and now with Northwestern’s Facilities Management department. He is currently coordinator of construction projects, but he grew up in Wellingborough, England, 15 miles from Althorp House, Diana’s family residence. Father and daughters visited Diana’s burial place there in 2015 to pay respects, long after their Northwestern meeting.

“She was a fairytale – and on that day she came to life. Even though I was so young, it was an incredible experience to meet her,” recalled Madeleine McGonigle of the 1996 encounter. “Being half British, even from a very young age, we had the upmost respect and reverence for the royal family. The respect and honor made meeting her one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It is still something I often talk about.”

Emily McGonigle was so young when she met Princess Diana, she observes today, “It became this perfect moment stuck in time for me. I idolized her and saw her as she was presented to me that day, the Princess. I had grown up seeing that image on a daily basis, and our picture from that day had pride of place in my childhood home.

“After visiting her family home in England and seeing her final resting place, it became very apparent she was a person just like the rest of us, but who’d been thrust into the world’s spotlight, both seeing and doing things most people will never experience,” added Emily McGonigle. 

“The connection of her childhood home, only a few miles from where my grandparents and father grew up, and her position in society brought her much closer to me” she said. “Knowing that she took her fame and status and managed to utilize her privileges for the betterment of others, raised her beyond being just a princess. In my mind, that day she went from being a princess to being an inspiration.” 

Like the McGonigles, many Northwestern royal watchers are making the connection between the causes Princess Di famously championed and the ones Markle took up after graduating from the University’s School of Communication in 2003 with a double major in theater and international studies. She was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.

Scott Sowerby, associate professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and an expert on the British monarchy, noted that Markle will not be continuing her acting career but “has displayed a deep interest in women’s rights in her work for the United Nations and with World Vision.

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She’s acting on a bigger stage now.

Scott Sowerby
associate professor of history
“She will be able to build on that in her new role as a member of the royal family. She’s acting on a bigger stage now,” said Sowerby, a historian of early modern Britain and Europe with a particular interest in comparative history and transnational issues, including religious toleration, state formation, military power and cosmopolitanism.

Sowerby and another British historian from Northwestern, History Professor Deborah Cohen, will discuss the evolution of England’s monarchy in a tea and conversation event May 18 in honor of the royal wedding of Markle to Prince Harry. The two will critique “The British Monarchy – Then and Now” in a conversation that examines both the modernizing royal institution and the un-refurbished monarchy of the past.

Like the McGonigles, many at Northwestern this week were recalling the visit by Princess Diana and the connection they feel growing between the University and royals.

Back in 1996, the Princess of Wales came to the Chicago area for a three-day visit to tour Northwestern’s Evanston campus at the invitation of then President Bienen, to visit patients in Cook County Hospital, speak on the Chicago campus and headline a black-tie fundraising gala at the Field Museum of Natural History to raise money for cancer research.

Her visit to Northwestern included a short tour of the Evanston campus led by then–Associated Student Government president Leontine Chuang ’97, ’01 JD. Hundreds of well-wishers greeted Diana’s black Rolls-Royce when she arrived near the Weber Arch. She then visited the home of President Bienen, who hosted Diana for a private reception with breast cancer researchers, Northwestern trustees, the governor of Illinois and the mayors of Evanston and Chicago and their spouses.

The following day Diana offered opening remarks at the Northwestern University Symposium on Breast Cancer at the Pritzker School of Law’s Thorne Auditorium. Later, as the guest of honor at the gala — where she wore a floor-length Versace gown, in Northwestern purple — she danced with TV host Phil Donahue and heard singer Tony Bennett serenade her. The A-list guests included Deloris Jordan, Michael’s mother, who stopped by to present the princess with autographed Chicago Bulls souvenirs for Prince William and Prince Harry before running off to catch Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

“I love Chicago,” Diana said as she boarded a British Airways plane for her flight home. “It’s been wonderful.”

For the McGonigles, the wonder of the ‘People’s Princess’ endures, and it’s now a family tradition, dating back to royal visits, sightings and events for Andrew McGonigle when he grew up in England..

“The entire country was given a holiday when Charles and Diana married,” Andrew McGonigle recalled. “Like everybody else we were glued to the television to watch this. I was at University in Manchester at the time. During the Queen’s Silver jubilee celebration, again the country had a holiday. This I spent with my parents and went out to toast the queen with my father.. … I had the privilege of seeing Diana a couple of times when I worked in London, again a rare and memorable event.”

But it was the time he helped position his young daughters near the spot where the princess would pass at Northwestern that retains a special place in the family heart.

“Being very young enabled them to get much closer to Diana without security blocking their way, hence the location I scoped out prior to her arrival and the size of the floral tribute,” he remembered. “A larger floral tribute would have alerted security to a potential threat. The owner of Natural Things, a florist on Central Street who has since gone out of business, felt very honored that she was able to make them for Diana and was very proud.

“My daughters were familiar with the royal family before the visit — every little girl’s dream is to be a princess — and here they got to meet one, the closest they would ever come,” McGonigle recalled. Now the family shares a Northwestern connection with the bride to be. 

Emily graduated in Civil Engineering from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and now works on local environmental engineering projects in the Chicago area.

Madeleine McGonigle graduated with a joint degree in Chemistry and Spanish from St Olaf College and a Master in Scientific Management from Notre Dame University and currently is working for Amway in Michigan 

Both just returned from England and witnessed first-hand the run up to the royal wedding, to take place May 19. Both were amazed by the amount of coverage the wedding was receiving — both in the media and attention and images that abounded all around.

“They are both very proud and can clearly identify with the couple,” Andrew McGonigle said. “Both my daughters have dual citizenship, and the couple will be representing both sides of their heritage, UK and U.S., in one symbolized union. We brought up the girls in Evanston, and they are firm believers in equality for all and are happy to see such a union at this level overcoming many odds.”