Liberia: Walter Gwenigale – Great Liberian Medical Doctor With a Mission

Dr. Walter T. Gwenigale.   

He was a little fellow in Sanoyea, the town of his birth in Lower Bong County, just starting elementary school, when a Stewart woman, his teacher, sister of Mrs. Margaret Stewart Traub, spotted him and soon discovered his extraordinary academic talents.

Margaret, her sister and her husband, the Rev. Byron Z. Traub, were all teaching at the Lutheran Mission School in Sanoyea, then in the Central Province that later became Bong County, where a young little girl, Mae Gene Traub, who later became Walter’s youngest sister, was born.

Margaret Traub’s sister came to her and said, “You, unlike me, have a husband.  Please take this little fellow and raise him; he will not disappoint you.”

As some thinking people like to say, “The rest is history.”  Margaret and her husband took over little Walter and he became Walter Traub.  They later sent him to the Lutheran Mission in Harrisburg, Montserrado County, on the St. Paul River, a small town situated between Crozierville and White Plains, where Walter continued elementary school.  He was later sent to Zorzor, then in Liberia’s Western Province, now  Lofa County, where he continued his elementary education, before entering the Lutheran Training Institute (LTI) in Salayea, also in Lofa County.   

It was at LTI that Walter met several other promising young people like himself, including the eminent Liberian writer, author, and teacher, Wilton Sankawulo of Haindii, Bong County, Zizi Harris, and Flomo Nyanquoi Stevens, also of Lofa County.  Sankawulo, like Walter, were both born in the Central Province that in 1964 became Bong County, one of the four new Counties in which President W.V.S. Tubman established.  The other new counties were Lofa in Western Liberia, Nimba in Central Liberia, and Grand Gedeh in Eastern Liberia. Sankawulo was born in Haindii, Lower Bong County, home of the Traubs.

As history would have it, these three young fellows, all high school graduates of LTI, were destined to meet at Cuttington College and Divinity School in February 1960.  There they were to meet and befriend other classmates, several of whom have also made their marks on Liberian history. 

Among these 1960 Cuttington freshmen were James Teah Tarpeh, who went on to take the Doctor of Philosophy degree in Political Science from the University of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, United States of America, and become Dean of Liberal Arts at the University of Liberia; Flomo Nyanquoi Stevens, already recognized as a prominent mathematician at Cuttington, who went on obtain his Doctorate in Math in the USA; Sankawulo, who later took two Master’s degrees in English and Literature in the USA and became an eminent Liberian author and teacher; Z. Moulay B. Reeves, who became an economist and held prominent positions at Liberia’s Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs. 

Maulay’s other classmate, Ruth Lymas,   later became Mrs. Z. Moulay Reeves and a great teacher of English and Literature in Liberia. Walter Gwenigale’s other Cutttington classmates were two old boys from the Booker Washington Institute (BWI), Grand Bassa-born Jerry Sauser, the BWI valedictorian in 1959, who went on to take the Ph.D. in General Science in the USA, and Kenneth Y. Best, who became an African journalist and in 1971 married Walter’s sister, Ms. Mae Gene Traub.  Before his marriage, KYB took the Master of Science degree in Comparative Journalism from Columbia University in New York.

Walter left Cuttington in his sophomore year when the Lutherans sent him to Puerto Rico to study Medicine.  This patriotic Liberian was offered several USA jobs immediately upon his graduation from Medical School but decided to return home to serve his people.

Immediately upon return, he came to the Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs and Tourism (MICAT), to find his Cuttington classmate, Kenneth Y. Best.   Walter told Best that the Lutherans had decided to close down Phebe Hospital because American Lutherans had run out of money and had decided to depart Liberia in order ”to evangelize the heathens at home, rather than the heathens abroad.”

“Can you please come and help us to keep Phebe Hospital open? was Walter’s plea.

That Friday evening Ken Best drove to Phebe Hospital in Suacoco, interviewed the departing medical director, Dr. Stohl, then took a complete tour of the campus, interviewing the entire staff.  On returning to Monrovia, Best stayed up all night writing his stories, published in the Tuesday and Thursday editions of The Liberian Star and The Liberian Age

Liberia’s President William Tolbert immediately summoned his Health Minister Oliver Bright, to find out why Phebe was closing.  Minister Bright told the President what Mr. Best had said in his stories.  

The President then asked the Minister how much it takes to run Phebe Hospital annually.  He replied,  “According to Mr. Best, little more than US$400,000.”  President Tubman immediately ordered his Health Minister to write a letter to the President’s younger brother, Steve Tolbert, then Liberia’s Minister of Finance, ordering him to find the money to keep Phebe Hospital open.  

The rest, as they say, is history.  Phebe was left open and Dr. Walter Gwenigale took it over and ran it successfully for nearly three decades, bringing in more money than Phebe had ever raised, thanks to his efficient and dynamic stewardship at the institution.  Thanks be to God and to Dr. Walter Gwenigale, Phebe Hospital is, nearly five decades later, still open, serving the sick throughout Liberia and elsewhere, including accident victims on Liberia’s highways.

Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, on becoming President of Liberia in 2006 named Dr. Walter Gwenigale Minister of Health and Social Welfare.  He ran the Ministry successfully for several years until his retirement to private life.  He returned to Phebe Hospital, where he had served for decades as a chief medical officer.  His beloved wife Carmen, a Puerto Rican professional nurse and mother of their three children, Walter, Jr., Carmen, and Raymond, returned to Puerto Rico during the Liberian civil war. 

 She is arriving early this week with their daughter Carmen to join her brothers, Walter, Jr., and Raymond, at the funeral of their legendary father, Liberian medical doctor, Walter Traub Gwenigale.

Walter, Jr., fortunately, was here in Liberia at his father’s bedside at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center when the legendary Dr. Walter Gwenigale, Sr. faithfully and gratefully answered his eternal summons.