By Gabriel I.H. Williams
There is a wise saying which goes, “Give a man his flowers while he is still alive.” This is why, following his retirement in February 2018 after laboring for more than 50 years as a journalist, it is my honor and privilege to pay homage to Mr. Kenneth Y. Best, a legendary journalist, fearless warrior with the pen and mentor.
A youth from an under-privileged background, I was given an opportunity out of poverty by Mr. Best, who trained and mentored me to be a professional journalist. He truly exemplifies the old adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Over the years, Mr. Best taught, mentored, empowered, and employed many young people, especially in Liberia, and The Gambia – where he relocated with his family in 1990 during the Liberian civil crises and founded that country’s first independent daily and first modern newspaper, The Gambian Daily Observer. His influence speaks to the conscience of the Liberian society in particular, and to humanity, in general.
While preparing to graduate from the D. Twe Memorial High School in New Kru Town, Monrovia in December 1982, I took a letter I had drafted to Mrs. Rachel A.B. Cox-George, then D. Twe’s Vice Principal for Administration, to proofread for me. The draft was one of several letters of appeal I had been sending to prominent individuals in the Liberian society seeking financial aid for college enrollment. Without financial support or a job, my prospect for college enrollment did not look promising.
As she handed me back the proofread letter, Mrs. Cox-George (May her soul rest in perfect peace), offered to sponsor me to pursue professional study in journalism at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ) in Accra, Ghana. Concerned that many young people who graduate from public schools like D. Twe are often stuck in their poor communities due to lack of support and opportunities for advancement, Mrs. Cox-George said she did not want me to fall through similar cracks because I had distinguished myself to be a studious and respectful youth.
When I enrolled at D. Twe in the 10th grade in 1980, there were many organizations, including the Science Club, Drama and Debate Club, Bible Club, Press Club, as well as the choir and sports. I joined the Press Club and became the reporter for my class. Upon promotion to the 12th grade, I was elevated as chairman and editor-in-chief of the Press Club. In 1980, I was one of the original reporters of School Special, a popular program which aired every Saturday on national radio ELBC, during which reporters from various high schools in Monrovia and parts adjacent filed reports from their respective schools. Some of School Special’s notable reporters were Patrick Manjoe of Boatswain High School and now late Gabriel Gworlekaju of Monrovia Central High, both of whom went on to successful journalism careers.
It was having closely followed my activities as a student journalist at D. Twe that Mrs. Cox-George offered to sponsor my study at the Ghana Institute of Journalism. While gathering information about GIJ, we learned that a critical requirement for enrollment was that an applicant must have no less than six months working experience with a recognized media entity.
And this is why, after graduation, Mrs. Cox-George sent me with a note to Mr. Best, Managing Director of the Liberian Observer Corporation, the publisher of the Daily Observer newspaper. The note was a request for Mr. Best to kindly take me in as a cub reporter at the Daily Observer, one of West Africa’s leading independent dailies.
As God would have it, Mr. Best was in office when I arrived at the Daily Observer office to deliver the note. The secretary requested me to be seated when she took the note in to him. When she came back out, I was informed that Mr. Best was waiting to see me.
I was almost a nervous wreck when ushered into Mr. Best’s office. “Sit down, young man. I heard from your principal that you want to be a journalist?” he asked. “Yes Sir,” I responded. “Do you know what it means to be a journalist in Africa, especially here in Liberia?”
With those two questions, Mr. Best gave me a pep talk about the importance of the role of a journalist in society. As the watchdogs of society, he said, journalists are obligated to serve the common good of society by being the voice of the voiceless, and to advocate for equal justice and good governance, among others. Nevertheless, he added, being a journalist in Africa or Liberia for that matter was fraught with personal risks and dangers. This is because freedom of speech and of the press was basically criminalized, as journalists suffered arbitrary arrest and detention and independent media entities were banned for alleged anti-government reporting.
Following his pep talk, Mr. Best had me accompany him to the newsroom, where he introduced me to Mr. T. Maxson Teah, then News Editor of the Daily Observer. “This young man says he wants to be a journalist. Test him and let me know whether he has a foundation for development,” Mr. Best instructed.
This is how I began my career as a journalist at the Daily Observer, which was also a training institution, where the editorial staff benefitted from regular in-service training programs to upgrade their professional skills. At the time I was brought on board, Observer staffs were undergoing a training program conducted by a lecturer from the London-based Thompson Foundation, which enjoys global recognition as a leader in journalism training.
My skills were sharpened while working under the tutelage of some of the best journalists in Liberia during that time, including now late legendary Stanton B. Peabody, Editor-in-Chief, whose imprisonment in the 1960s by the government led to journalists coming together to organize the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). Others were Sub-Editor Isaac Thompson, Features Editor Joe Kappia, World News Editor Mlanju Reeves, and now late News Editor T. Max Teah, who was commonly known as T-Max.
At the conclusion of my six-month journalistic internship at the Observer after which I was expected to enroll at the GIJ, there came a major stumbling block. Ghana, then an unstable country due to successive military misrules, had been plunged into yet another bloody crisis that resulted to the closure of institutions of higher learning, including the GIJ.
The economy and living conditions in Ghana had deteriorated in those days that Ghanaian merchants and others came to Liberia to purchase basic commodities, such as toothpaste, tissue and bath soap. Today, Ghana is one of the most democratically peaceful and prosperous countries in Africa.
By God’s grace, Mr. Best decided to retain me as a reporter at the Observer because, he said, I had performed satisfactorily and that he saw in me the potential for growth.
Mr. Best also asked if I could go to New Kru Town and find one of my former schoolmates and colleagues of the press club, who was serious minded and dedicated to duty as I was, who would be trained and deployed in New Kru Town as a Daily Observer correspondent.
I went to New Kru Town and contacted Philip Wesseh, who graduated a year earlier as my senior. I succeeded Wesseh as editor-in-chief of the Press Club. Even though he graduated as the valedictorian of his class, Wesseh was unable to attend college and was without a job. He was also an example of the many students in public schools who are unable to transition from high school to college due to their economically disadvantaged background.
With the opportunity afforded him to excel, Wesseh soon became one of the best reporters at the Daily Observer, and he was later promoted to News Editor. Today, Attorney Philip Wesseh, a graduate of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, the University of Liberia, is Managing Editor of the independent Inquirer newspaper and a university lecturer.
Mr. Best maintained a culture of hard-work at the Observer and did not have tolerance for mediocrity. He often reminded us that journalists are part of the intelligentsia of the society. He strived to ensure that the media is positioned to play its role as part of the main foundation on which rests a democratic society.
The Daily Observer was launched by Kenneth and his wife Mae Gene Best on February 16, 1981, less than a year following the military take-over of the government in Liberia. In the succeeding years leading to the civil crises, the Observer suffered five closures, including one that lasted nearly two years, for alleged anti-government reporting. There were several government imprisonments of the Observer staff, including Mr. Best and his wife; as well as several arson attacks, the last of which completely destroyed the building housing the newspaper’s offices and facilities during the early stage of civil upheaval.
During the prolonged period of the Observer’s closure in 1984, I landed a reporter job with then newly-established Suntimes newspaper, led by legendary journalist Rufus Darpoh, following his release from the notorious Belle Yallah prison, where he was incarcerated for alleged anti-government reporting.
While at Suntimes, I applied for an international journalism fellowship, through which about three to five journalists are brought to the United Nations Headquarters in New York annually for education and mentoring in international affairs and to cover the annual session of the UN General Assembly. From the essay submissions, I became number one out of more than 380 journalists around the world competing for only four spots in 1986. I became the first Liberian to serve as a Daj Hammarskjold Scholar, one of the most prestigious awards in international journalism, since its establishment in 1961.
Upon return from the U.S., I became Secretary General of the Press Union, and during the civil war, and acting President. I was the founding Managing Editor of The Inquirer newspaper in 1991, after which I fled to the United States due to death threats during the civil war and served as Staff Writer of the Sacramento Observer newspaper in Sacramento, California. While in California, I published the book, “Liberia: The Heart of Darkness.” Since the restoration of peace in Liberia, I have served in a couple of governmental positions, including Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, and am currently a diplomat. All this is possible because of Mr. Best’s tutorship and mentoring.
Despite the trials and tribulations, the Daily Observer celebrated its 37th anniversary February 16, 2018, becoming Liberia’s oldest surviving newspaper. At 37, the Observer has surpassed the Liberian Herald, founded in 1826, which lasted for 36 years.
It is my fervent prayer that the Lord will grant my professional father peace, fulfillment, and good health in retirement. Thank God for Mr. and Mrs. Best!