Willis DeFrancis Knuckles, Jr.: loving husband, doting father, adoring grandfather, caring family man, Administrateur par excellence, loyal friend, nationalist of the first order, passionate church-builder, exemplary community father, sports lover, servant of God and his fellow man.
Believe it or not, brothers and sisters, these are only a few of the sterling qualities that describe the man whose passing we mourn today, my father Willis D. Knuckles Jr., Junior Boy.
It was no small gift that was delivered to Willis Knuckles Sr. and his wife Ethel Dunbar Knuckles on June 29, 1946. That child would be blessed by God with uncommon leadership abilities and a profound sense of commitment to make the world better than he met it.
Willis Jr. was a member of many organizations: the Grandview Club at the College of West Africa, the Nader Sports Club of Cuttington, the Student Association of Cuttington, Crowd 21, Rotary Club, Alpha Old-timers FC, etc. He was always one of the most active floor members, always ready to lead and work; as a result, there was hardly an organization of which he was a member, where he was not elected president.
He could always sort out issues and find the most efficient way to get a job done. Willis met any major task headlong and loved any job that tended to challenge him mentally, like building the same church twice or taking part in winning a national race twice.
Daddy loved us dearly and committed himself to always do his best for us. We also grew up watching him serve as head of the wider Knuckles family. Every major issue affecting any Knuckles relative was brought to him to handle and he found time to listen and help.
Willis Jr. always took the time to listen to his children. He encouraged us equally to continue and complete our studies. And when we each decided at different times to return home to Liberia with business ideas, he made each of us think through every layer of detail and then gave his complete, unwavering support. He also gave to the needy, organizing multiple yearly fundraisers that provided sneakers, food, and clothes for hundreds of children in need as well as providing scholarships for dozens of needy children. With a gathering of other young children constantly around him, he made sure that his children and grandchildren always felt like they were his number one priority. The children of Willis Knuckles Jr. pledge to establish a foundation in his honor to continue his tradition of giving.
Willis Jr. was a football enthusiast and founding member of the Alpha Old-timers Sports Association. Over the years, he loved to get his children and grandchildren involved in his Sunday morning preparations, having one prepare his bags and gear and the others remove them after he came home. Although being a girl, Hawa-Ellen became an expert in the art of shinguard removal. Ethel and I learned to do the same. He would take many of us with him to the various games and tournaments, as well as the league and national team games. Football was a passion for him, one that his son imitated at an early age. One of my fondest memories was when he called me in from our back yard in Congo Town to have a very serious one-on-one conversation about something I did wrong. Previously he asked me to decide which local football team to support, and since he supported Mighty Barrolle, he was very disturbed and perturbed to find out I supported the Invincible Eleven (IE). He said, “Chup, don’t do what the other children are doing. You know how good Salinsa is; please root for Barrolle.” I never did. And so began a great divide in Junior Boy’s house whenever Barrolle and IE played – Junior Boy and Hawa-Ellen on the Barrolle side, and my mother, EV and I on the IE side. Even though he loved Barrolle, I was able to get him to admit more than once that a certain IE striker named George Weah was indeed blessed with “raw talent”.
As a concerned nationalist of the first order, Willis Jr. also understood the power of football to unite across all borders, including political. It was under his administration that the LFA and the Liberia Lone Star had its golden years, producing such world-class athletes as Joe Nagbe, Pewu Bestman, James Salinsa Debbah and George Oppong Weah. Willis was so effective that during his time at the LFA, he was joined by none other than the then-President of Liberia, CIC Samuel K. Doe, who had previously thrown Willis in jail for an article he wrote in the Daily Observer. Daddy served as Match Commissioner for CAF, and also ran a local sports newspaper, “Sports World”, during which time he hired me as a freelance journalist. It was under him that I learned the art of descriptive writing, painting a picture with your words so as to describe an event for your audience who might not have seen it.
Willis was the large proverbial cotton tree in the Knuckles forest where many Knuckles relatives found shelter, refuge and counsel in the storms of their lives. Today we mourn because our big cotton tree has fallen. However even in our grief, we do not mourn as those without hope, for our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Thank you God for the big compassionate tree you gave us! He served us well. Thanks be to God for the man, Willis DeFrancis Knuckles, Jr.
Yes, he was all this and more but we as his immediate family will always cherish the great testimony and legacy of his life, the Seys United Methodist Church. Willis Jr surrendered his talents and gifts to the Lord and the Lord used him as an instrument to build an edifice to God’s honor and glory. This beautiful building in which we mourn Willis Knuckles Jr today stands as a profound statement to what can happen when you present for God’s service what God has blessed you with.
Thank you God for sending him our way. The laborer is now gone to rest!
Daddy, you were our rock, our pillar of strength. To say you will be missed is an understatement. We will miss you.
Kabu will miss you nosing in her pots at Evelyn’s Restaurant. Your Cuttington buddies knew, but little did everyone else know, that you were the real cook in the family. You always said you could put any woman to shame in her own kitchen. That’s why you would always make Mama leave the kitchen before you started cooking.
I will miss our football discussions, and printing your yearly Champions League and World Cup schedules, always reminding you which games were the best ones and which games started at midnight local time, to help you plan your watching schedule.
Evie will miss your early-morning phone calls and long discussions about church activities. One of her most cherished memories is the day you found out that the rebuilt Seys Church edifice had been burned down. You simply said to her “EV, we rebuilt this church before, we will have to do it again.” You did not let the sun go down in your anger. Rather, you reaffirmed your commitment to God’s work on the day your beloved church was devastated.
My wife Marie will miss you, Daddy. You embraced her as your fourth child, and ensured her transition to Liberia from the US was smooth. You were an imposing character and yet she found you so approachable. On many an occasion when she felt like she couldn’t talk to me, she called you and you would tell me to listen to her. Daddy, she left her father to come here, and you became her new father.
My son Samuel will always remember the first conversation you had with him, in which you convinced him that his real name was Willis IV.
My daughter Nala will no longer be able to dance and sing for you.
Hawa will miss her chief organizer and planner.
Our Sunday gatherings in Careysburg will never be the same. We will all miss you organizing the roast.
In closing, I know that in the aftermath of his passing I will hear many things about my father – some good, and some bad. Let it be known that no matter what has been said, or what will be said, Daddy, your children will always love you.
The master planner is planning no more. The strategist can no longer strategize. The laborer’s work is done.
It is finished. Rest in peace Daddy! FINALLY, YOU CAN REST IN PEACE.