James C. Dennis, Sr., Oldest Liberian Journalist and PUL’s Longest Serving President, Turns 86 Sunday

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Mr. James C. Dennis, longest serving PUL President_web.jpg

A Partial Reprint

When President Tubman Was Alive the Two Shared the Birthday Celebration

Mr. James Cambric Dennis, the longest serving president of the Press Union of Liberia (1966-1980), turns 86 on Sunday, November 30, 2014. 

He was born on November 30, 1929, to the union of Mr. Charles C. Dennis, Sr. of Monrovia, and his wife Mrs. Isabel Mary Thompson Dennis of Harper, Cape Palmas, Maryland County.

Jimmy, like his younger brother, C. Cecil Dennis, Jr., received his early education at their mother’s knees in Louisiana, a St. Paul River (Up River) settlement in Montserrado County, Liberia, where Mr. and Mrs. Dennis had a farm.  The father was then appointed to positions in the nation’s interior service, starting in Tappita, then in the Central Province, now in Nimba County.                 

Lorma-made Boots

He served also in Lofa County.  It was there that Mr. Dennis, Sr. discovered that the Lorma people were making their own shoes and boots.  He reported this to President Edwin J. Barclay, who became highly impressed and immediately ordered a consignment of boots and shoes for the soldiers of the Liberia Frontier Force (FFL), now Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).  That is when, for the first time, the ordinary soldiers, the enlisted men, started wearing shoes every day.  Before then, only the officers wore shoes, while enlisted men went barefooted, wearing only thick socks with their uniform. 

From Lofa, Mr. Dennis, Sr. was assigned to Grand Cape Mount County.  But shortly after Tubman got elected President in 1943, things started changing because it was believed that Tubman did not want too many Barclay people in the interior service.

Barclay had opened a Government Store Down Water Side, where some of the interior people could bring their manufactured goods, including the Lormas’ boots and shoes, for sale.  Barclay felt that this would encourage others to emulate the Lormas’ example.   

Edwin Barclay’s Interior Policy

One of President Edwin Barclay’s interior policies was that foreign traders should be limited to Monrovia and reach not beyond Kakata.  That, he felt, would give Liberians the opportunity to do business in the interior and thereby better control the country’s economy. But shortly after Tubman became President he closed the government store and at the same time launched the Open Door Policy, which allowed foreigners the permission to trade any and everywhere in Liberia.  That immediately began the slow but steady decline of Liberian entrepreneurial capacity.  Everyone can see the result of that today: Liberia’s economy is firmly under the control of foreign business people.

CWA

Jimmy and his younger brother Cecil then entered Monrovia’s   College of West Africa    (CWA), both in the 4th grade.  They   graduated together                                                                                                                                                  from high school in 1949.  Their classmates were Maude and Spriggs Parker, T. Edwin Lomax, Julia Gibson and Billy Gibson; Ayo Taylor Cummings, Hilda Luke, Dr. Edwin Jallah and Sam Richelieu Watkins. 

Jimmy recalls that during their high school days he and others went to see their classmate, Edwin Lomax, who lived with his uncle-in-law, President Barclay.   President Edwin Barclay.  Barclay, the intellectual, once showed some microscopes he had at his home at the corner of Broad and Randall Streets, just where the Executive Pavilion sits. Frequently President Barclay had them investigating various organisms through the microscopes. 

In 1950, shortly after graduation, Jimmy and his brother traveled to the USA for further studies, Cecil for Law, and Jimmy, Medicine.

That same year Mr. Dennis, Sr. and his wife Isabela started Liberia’s first daily newspaper, the Daily Listener.

The Switch from Medicine

In 1952 in the USA Jimmy married his high school sweetheart, Hilda Luke, and the marriage, though   short-lived, was blessed with two sons.

In 1952 the American government, seeing the interest generated by the Dennis family’s newspaper, The Listener, extended an invitation to C.C. Dennis under the “Leaders Grant” program to tour America to acquaint themselves with the operations of large and small US newspapers.  He traveled to 22 states.  But first he went to Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania (PA), to see his sons, Jimmy and Cecil, who were both enrolled there.  The purpose of Mr. Dennis, Sr.’s visit was to convince Jimmy to travel along with him around the USA.  The reason: C.C. Dennis, as the father was commonly called, earnestly wanted Jimmy to leave Medicine and study Journalism, so that one day he would take over the Daily Listener

“We went through 22 states and by the time we got through half of them, my mind was made up,” Jimmy Dennis told the Daily Observer in an exclusive interview. 

After a summer of travel around the country with his father, Jimmy then switched from Medicine to Journalism.  He entered the other Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri (MI), where he graduated with the Bachelor of Journalism (BJ) degree.  He then found employment with the Argus newspaper and later the St. Louis American newspaper, both in St. Louis, MI.  It was at the Argus Newspaper that Jimmy met his second wife, Doris J. Cole Dennis, a petite (small) African American beauty working for the same paper.   That union was blessed with three children, a girl, Peta J., Charles C. Dennis III and Roger Cambric Dennis.    

The Return Home: Wife Doris’ Pursuasion

But Jimmy was enjoying his journalism career in the USA, where the press was free. Being aware of the difficulties under which the press fared during the Tubman administration, Jimmy said he was reluctant to return home.  It took four trips by Mr. C.C. Dennis and his wife Isabela to the USA to persuade their son to return home and take over The Listener.  But it was Jimmy’s wife Doris that envisioned the need to return home and help lift Liberian journalism to a new level.  She persuaded her husband to take the challenge and Jimmy agreed.

They departed America and landed in Liberia in June, 1962 with their   only daughter Peta.

The first morning at the Daily Listener, Jimmy discovered to his utter surprise that while he had been helping to run a 48- page newspaper in the States, his father’s newspaper was only four pages!  “That was a shock!  And,” he said, “you could hardly read  the archaic (ancient) type faces.  The idea of computers was then not even a dream.  Newspapers were type-set by either the linotype or by hand, using old type-faces that had to be placed letter by letter.  But worse yet, the staff quickly informed their new boss, Jimmy, that they had not been paid for four months!

Jimmy Takes Over The Listener

“It was at that point that I called a meeting with my parents and asked my father to completely step aside and let me take over the newspaper, with my mother’s assistance.  CC was completely shocked at Jimmy’s proposal, but reluctantly accepted it, especially since he saw that his wife was on her son’s side. 

CC also knew that that was the saving grace for the newspaper.

“We reorganized the paper and had two signatories, unlike in the past, when my father was the sole signatory, strutting around town with the checkbook in his pocket.” 

Within three months Jimmy, the new publisher, had paid the staff off, and the paper had been increased to eight pages.  Within a year, the size was increased to 16, then 32, then 48 pages.    

48-page Paper

“How did it get to 48 pages, the Daily Observer asked Jimmy?”

“Realizing that a newspaper is a business that cannot operate without advertising,” Jimmy replied, “we then began to solicit and educate business houses to support the newspaper, a suggestion which they willingly accepted. It was at that time that we introduced the concept of welcoming   President Tubman whenever he returned from visits abroad.

“The first 48 pages we published followed a most auspicious visit, that of President and Mrs. William V.S. Tubman from their state visit to Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburg, Prince Phillip, in 1962. 

“It was the first time the President and most people had seen a local newspaper of that volume.  It was at that point that I began to receive invitations from foreign governments to visit their respective countries and publish activities that might attract local interest.   And this stimulated my interest to move further to establish Palm Magazine in the year 1964.”  Palm was a monthly.  

Encouragement to KYB

“What you have come through, Kenneth, is a most courageous feat.   When I came home in 2004 after many years in the States, I found you very busy trying to put your old establishment back together.  The awards and recognitions you have received, are most certainly deserving.  I am proud to sit with you and discuss the kind of journalism that needs to be practiced in our country.  I am the oldest journalist in Liberia.  But you can say that you are the oldest practicing Liberian journalist.     

“May the good Lord continue to strengthen, guide and protect you to practice this profession, which is the only way of promoting our country to the world.

“Sitting at your desk this afternoon has re-inspired me to reflect that I, too, once sat in a similar seat.

“My wife Kathryn Louise White-Dennis joins me in wishing you and your family and staff good luck, long life and happiness throughout your endeavor in trying to keep Liberia in the forefront of this world of ours.  Congratulations!”

Thanking Mr. Dennis, the Daily Observer publisher said he was  humbled by those kind and encouraging words from an elder colleague who has himself been there in the hot seat.  This will be seen later in Jimmy’s fascinating story.

Life in the Press Union

Jimmy Dennis, like K.Y.  Best, was a founding member of the Press Union of Liberia, 1964.  Its first president was Henry B. Cole, then editor of the Liberian Age, the news organ of the ruling True Whig Party (TWP).  Mr. Cole wanted to be president for only a year; so in the following election, 1965, Tuan Wreh, a journalist who had been persecuted by the Tubman administration during the political crisis of 1955, was elected the union’s second president.  In 1966 Jimmy Dennis, managing editor of the Daily Listener and publisher of Palm Magazine, founded by him and his wife Doris,  was elected the third president of the PUL.  Jimmy went on to become the longest serving PUL president in the organization’s history.  He remained president until 1980 when the bloody military coup d’état occurred, killing the President and many of his topmost officials.    Jimmy’s younger  brother C. Cecil Dennis, Jr., Tolbert’s Foreign Minister, was among the 13 top officials that were executed by firing squad on April 22, 1980.          

Upon Jimmy’s election as PUL president in 1966, President Tubman invited the entire PUL to the Executive Mansion for the installation ceremonies.  It was a full blast affair, with all senior members of government, the full diplomatic corps and other prominent personalities in the society in attendance.

PUL Prexy’s First Test from Tubman

But not long following these joyous installation festivities, something serious happened.

Tuan Wreh wrote something in one of the newspapers that made President Tubman very angry; so, as usual, one Friday morning he had the journalist locked up, for the second time, and the President promptly took off for his Totota farm.

That was the weekend and you know, it  meant spending the entire weekend in the cell at South Beach, until Monday morning.  For who would stand your bond if the President had ordered you locked up?  Nobody!

But Jimmy Dennis knew that as PUL president, he had to act, and act fast.  He fired off a cable to the President at his farm.  President Tubman promptly replied saying that he would handle the matter on his return on Monday morning.  But the President’s telegram did not reach the PUL president.  So Jimmy, accompanied by another senior journalist, James (Jimmy) Marshall, assistant editor of the Liberian Age, drove off to Totota.  They stopped at Coocoo’s Nest, the motel which the President had built and named after his daughter, Mrs. Wilhelmina Coocoo Tucker. 

The two Jimmys proceeded to the bar to have a drink, awaiting the President, who they knew would be coming down to have drinks with friends at around 5 p.m.  The President did indeed show up at five p.m. He saw both men, whom he knew, sitting at the bar, and passed them without saying a word. 

After a few drinks the President departed for his farm home on the hill.  This made the two Jimmies very nervous and they knew they were in trouble.  About an hour later they heard sirens.  Suddenly in came some strapping (big and strong) police officers announcing that the President had sent for them.  The two Jimmies were petrified (scared stiff).  Jimmy Marshall, who stammered (stuttered) all his life, became speechless, striving in vain to utter a single word.

But Jimmy Dennis told his colleague to take courage and answer the President’s call.  So they went along with the officers.

On arrival, President Tubman greeted the PUL leader thus: “Good evening, Mr. President.  Jimmy Dennis’ retort was immediate and decisive: “No, Mr. President!  As far as I know there is only one President in the Republic of Liberia, and that’s you, Sir!”

That outburst of humility and political savvy was a brave attempt to put Tubman at ease, but it wasn’t enough.  After offering the two men a seat, President Tubman put the question straight to Jimmy Dennis.   “Did you not receive my cable telling you to await my return to Monrovia on Monday?  Then why did you come up here?” 

Jimmy Dennis bounced from his seat and told the President he had not received the cable.  “Do you think, Mr.President, that I would be so defiant to have received your cable and then come up here?  That would have been defiance, Mr. President, and I could never do that.  Please forgive me, Mr. President, but I did not receive your cable.”

The Liberian leader beckoned (signaled)  the PUL president to sit.

Then the President, apparently impressed by Jimmy’s contrite (apologetic, sorry) demeanor (behavior),  ordered drinks and the three sat the whole evening drinking until it was dinner time.  

Meanwhile, the President sent a cable to the Attorney General, Joseph Francis Jefferson Chesson, ordering Tuan Wreh’s immediate release from prison!

The two journalists were more than thrilled to be invited by the President of Liberia to his dinner table.  It was a happy ending to a very tense and scary evening in Totota. 

Fond Memories from  Stockholm

The following year, 1967, the PUL was invited to participate in a meeting of the International Association of Journalists (IAJ), held in Stockholm, the Swedish capital.   During that meeting, the PUL was formally admitted to membership in the IAJ, which made President Tubman very proud.    On the other hand, Ghana was expelled from the organization.  It was during the Nkrumah era, when press freedom was an anathema (something hated) to that defacto (actual) one-party regime.  Mark you, Liberia was not that much different, except that it was a dejure (not by law) one-party state, where press freedom was not welcomed either.  But Kwame Nkrumah appeared in the eyes of the international community to be much more rigid.  And don’t forget, Liberia was staunchly pro-Western.  Also, LAMCO, the Swedish iron ore mining company in Yekepa, Nimba County, was in full swing.

President Tubman was at the time in Zurich, Switzerland on his annual medical vacation.  He sent for the entire PUL delegation from Stockholm.  The delegation included PUL president Dennis, Stanton Peabody, assistant editor of the Liberian Age, T. Kla Williams and J. Milton Greaves, both senior executives of the Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS). 

The PUL delegation  met with the President at the Doldergrande Hotel in Zurich, where he congratulated them on their successful mission to Stockholm and invited them to have dinner with him.  And, in the typical Tubman tradition, he gave each of them a purse (some money).   

Jimmy Dennis told the Daily Observer a lighter but more joyful and memorable story of their visit to Stockholm.  One evening following the end of the IAJ conference, he and the delegation went to a bar.  As they sat there  drinking, they spotted a spectacularly beautiful Swede lady who walked in and sat alone at a table.  Jimmy, always a socialite like his father,   said he immediately asked the bartender to order her a drink.  She graciously accepted the gesture and, on receiving it, toasted to him from a distance.  He responded, and invited her over to join them at the bar, which she did. 

At a certain point, the Swedish beauty told her newly found African drinking friends, “Why are we sitting at a bar? Let’s go to my home.”

They joyfully agreed and proceeded to her plush Stockholm residence not far away.  There they found that she had three bars in her the house: the first was filled with nothing but champagne; the second, nothing but whiskey; and the third an assortment of every imaginable kind of drink, the wines, the whiskies, the brandies, you name it!  It was all theirs, she told her distinguished Liberian guests.

She then informed them that she was calling over some of friends to join the party.  Within minutes,  in came three other Swedish beauties and the party continued into the wee hours of the following morning. There was eating, drinking, dancing and everything else, to quote Jimmy directly!

Press Club of Liberia

During Mr. Dennis’ PUL presidency there was one other important accomplishment.  A Press Club was established at the Ducor Intercontinental Hotel.  The hotel management was persuaded to give us a room with a bar, where drinks were sold to journalists at discounted prices.  Distinguished international visitors were interviewed at the Press Club.  Among these who came in the 1970s were Abba Eban, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.  The first chairman was T. Minors Kla-Williams and the last, Kenneth Y. Best, who served through most of the 1970s.          

The Family Man

Jimmy Dennis married two other times.  His third wife was Elnora  Simpson Dennis, niece of Mrs. Eugenia Simpson Cooper, a wealthy Monrovia mother, educator and devout church worker.  Jimmy’s current wife is Mrs. Kathryn White- Dennis.

Jimmy’s children are Ricky C. Dennis, Mrs. Peta Jeimmye Murrey,   Charles C. Dennis III,  Roger C. Dennis and Cambric Ion Dennis.

Kathryn’s children are Dr. Albert T. White, MD, Andy, Seta White- Holder, William, Litwete, Mydea and Essie White-Clarke.

The Last Hurrah with Tubman

Jimmy Dennis’ last important encounter with President Tubman was during the week of November 29, 1970, the day the Liberian   leader celebrated his Diamond Jubilee, his  75th birthday, in his hometown, Harper, Cape Palmas, Maryland County.  It was an international event, with people coming from many parts of the world to join in the auspicious celebrations. 

At the end of the second day of the    festivities in Harper, Jimmy Dennis found his way to the President’s imposing palace on the beach overlooking the Atlantic.

While seated with President Tubman upstairs on the back porch overlooking the ocean, Jimmy was asked, “What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing, Mr. President,” Jimmy  replied.  “I’m just sitting here enjoying your company and looking at the ocean waves.”          

“But what’s really on your mind?” Tubman persisted.  

Embolden by the President’s entreaty (plea, urge), Jimmy replied, “You know something, Mr. President?”

“What is it, Jimmy?”

“Today is my birthday, but I never get to celebrate it because we are always so busy celebrating yours.”

“For true? Today is your birthday, Jimmy?”

“Yes sir, Mr. President,” Jimmy cheerfully responded.   

“Well, by Jimminee! We’re going to celebrate it right now! 

“Jimmy,” Tubman shouted out, calling his trusted Butler, Jimmy Barrolle.  The butler immediately appeared.  “Bring the champagne.  We are celebrating Mr. Dennis’ birthday right now!”

The champagne flowed through the evening until dinner time.  But during the sipping, President Tubman sent for Mrs. Tubman and informed her that Mr. Jimmy Dennis, president of the Press Union of Liberia, would be their dinner guest that evening.  “We’re celebrating his birthday, which is today, the day after mine!”

“Happy birthday, Jimmy!” Mrs. Tubman said.

“Thank you, Mrs. Tubman!” Jimmy responded gratefully.   

That is how Jimmy Dennis, for once, got to celebrate his own birthday.  He did so in the grandest of styles—as dinner guest of the President of Liberia and the First Lady, Mrs. Antoinette Tubman, at their palatial beachside home in Harper, Cape Palmas!

James C. Dennis spent his younger years as an active member of several social and civic organizations, including the YMCA, Boy Scouts of Liberia, the Go-Getters Social Club and the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.  He is also a member of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, in which he has served as right worshipful honorary deputy grand master, 33 degrees, past master, oriental Lodge Number 1, Order of Easter Star.

In 2013 he was honored by his church, the First United Methodist Church of Monrovia, as Father of the Year.  

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Why was James Cambridge Dennis Jr not mentioned as his son? He was born to James Cambridge Dennis Sr. and Hilda Luke in Washington DC, USA in 1953. It is very necessary to include all his children and not just some. Jimmy Jr. Passed away in Liberia 6/6/2006.

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