Longtime Friend of 'Trailblazer' Madeleine Albright Describes Her Impact as First Female Secretary of State

"She's of a mind that we all have a lot of work to do, and I don't think she'd want a lot of fuss made over her," Melanne Verveer tells PEOPLE

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That's how Melanne Verveer, now the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, is remembering Madeleine Albright — the first female U.S. secretary of state and a "trailblazer" diplomat, whom Verveer called a close friend for more than two decades and who died last week at 84.

Verveer first met Albright in 1993 when she was chief of staff to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and Albright had just been picked as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by President Bill Clinton.

Though the two worked together throughout the years, Verveer remembers a specific moment when their professional relationship grew tighter: at the 1995 Fourth World Conference where Albright was the head of the U.S. delegation to the U.N.

"We worked, really, day and night, very closely," Verveer tells PEOPLE. "There was a lot of work to do to plan for the U.S. role in the conference and so, from that moment on, it became a very, very close relationship and one that continued because the conference took place in September."

Months after the conference, President Clinton was re-elected and nominated Albright as the first-ever female secretary of state.

"She played a major role in the State Department in ways that the public doesn't know so much," Verveer says. Among Albright's accomplishments, says her friend, was her central role in "advancing progress for women and girls as a foreign policy issue," and she was the one to set up "the first office on women's issues in the state department."

Albright was also the first to champion "women's rights into the U.S. human rights issue," says Verveer, who notes that Albright "in many ways, started all of the kinds of things that later became de rigueur."

As for how Verveer would describe the former secretary of state, she spares no compliments: "She was determined. She wasn't nervous as some people might be of using her power for good. She had the greatest sense of humor. She was delightful to be with — absolutely delightful."

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Madeleine Albright. Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Albright's family announced on Wednesday that she had died from cancer earlier that day. She was remembered as a "tireless champion of democracy and human rights" and a "loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and friend."

Albright first immigrated to the United States at 11 years old, from Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1948. She spent the remainder of her childhood in Denver before going on to study at Wellesley College, where she graduated in 1959.

Her career in national politics traces back to being recruited to the White House under President Jimmy Carter following years of postgraduate study. She counseled several prominent Democratic politicians on foreign policy.

For Verveer, news of Albright's death was a "sudden shock," she says. The pair last spoke in January after Albright backed out from appearing at an event Verveer was organizing at Georgetown University, where Albright was also a professor.

"She would call me and say, 'Well, I don't think I should do this.' And then she'd say, 'I think it's okay if just somebody else does it, or I don't know that I should participate in another aspect,' " Verveer says.

Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attends the Yahoo News/ABC News White House Correspondents' Dinner Pre-Party at Washington Hilton on April 30, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

"It was clear that she wasn't feeling well," says Verveer, even though she didn't know the extent of what was happening.

She says the biggest indication for her that something was wrong came later in January, when Albright gave notice to the university that she wouldn't be teaching her class that semester. "That class meant everything in the world to her. She loved the students, she loved the exchange, she loved the material they covered, she never missed a class," Verveer recalls, "that was a sign that she was clearly in decline and knew that she wasn't up to it."

Verveer also mentions she didn't know the former secretary had been diagnosed with cancer before her death and only knew that Albright had a gastrointestinal problem. Even then, Albright "didn't want to talk about her health," Verveer says. Instead, Albright would say she trusted her doctors to "figure out what the problem" and was always quick to change the subject.

"I think few people knew she was ill, but just the sudden shock of her passing," Verveer says.

"I think she wants to be remembered as someone who tried to make a difference and wants us to continue to do that," Verveer tells PEOPLE. "Even President Clinton said that she wanted to get on with the conversation from talking about her to talking about the world that our children and grandchildren would inherit."

"She's of a mind that we all have a lot of work to do," her friend says, "and I don't think she'd want a lot of fuss made over her — but would want us to get back to work."

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