Jane Goodall speaks (to humans)

Her white hair pulled back in a signature low ponytail. On the road for 300 days a year, she travels with a bodyguard and a personal assistant. Anthropology professors and college students pay her equal homage. She’s won seemingly every award and honor. At 76, Jane Goodall is on top of the world.

At the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel last Friday night, the pioneering primatologist known for her decades of research with chimpanzees in Tanzania, kept a packed audience in rapture for just under two hours. After two introductions and a lengthy processional that included lines of children and a floating paper dove, Goodall stood, took in the massive crowd, and began her speech. Her remarks were modest yet impressive. She spoke freely of her family life–her mother in particular–and of her rise to the top of the male-dominated scientific world. She took responsibility for the failings of her generation in preserving the planet, although from the crowd’s enchantment it was clear that no one in attendance would have blamed her for any of the world’s problems. All the while, she appeared learned and earnest, even if the ceremony of the event dulled some of her charms.

As she talked about her childhood love of animals and her transition from scientist to activist, Goodall occasionally stumbled over her words. She would pause awkwardly or mispronounce a simple word or stammer through a phrase. But her mistakes didn’t seem to come from exhaustion or the effects of old age. Instead, it seemed that every story and topic contained a thousand more insights and ideas. When she spoke of Roots & Shoots, the community empowerment organization she helped found, she discussed everything from animal behavior and Tanzania to poverty and global warming. If she choked on her words, it was only because she had too much to share and not enough time.

Near the end of her speech, Goodall announced that she would throw a tiny stuffed animal into the crowd. Grown men grew giddy, college students stopped texting, children stood on pews. The stuffed gorilla, Goodall announced, would grant something good to whoever caught it. She tossed it high and hard, and as it flew over the audience, hundreds of hands reached up to grab it. Goodall smiled a little coyly and stepped away from the podium as the crowd sprang to their feet.