Last Saturday, Willis DeFrancis Knuckles, Jr. was laid to rest following a funeral service during which a rainstorm of praises were showered upon him for his many contributions to his family, country, church and people.
Amidst all of the tributes paid to this fallen national hero, no one, not even his closest family members, said that he was perfect.
But unlike the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, at whose historic funeral Mark Antony remarked, “We have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” the audience that overcrowded the Seys United Methodist Church in Careysburg last Saturday came to bid a glowing farewell to a man who used his extraordinary talents as an organizer, manager and fundraiser to accomplish great things for his family, country, church and people.
His wife Hawa, Willis’ Cuttington College sweetheart whom he married 45 years ago, two years after his graduation, wept bitterly as she departed the gravesite saying, “He was a good man.”
The funeral was attended both by the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the Vice President, Joseph N. Boakai. The President was also at the gravesite, and tarried with the widow and family during the repast.
All could see and behold that Ellen was gravely shaken by the loss of the man who twice organized her successful presidential campaigns that won her two successive elections to the Liberian presidency. She appointed him twice to the Cabinet, first as Public Works Minister and later as Minister of State for Presidential Affairs. After that he remained her confidante because she appreciated his wise counsel and his ability to get things done efficiently and quickly. Willis had only one academic degree, the Bachelor’s in Natural Sciences from the prestigious Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University); but there are not many most highly educated people that possess his extraordinary skills as an organizer and manager or, simply put, as a man who knew how to get things done.
That is why in her obituary on Saturday she told over a thousand who had gathered for the funeral something she had never said publicly: that it was Willis DeFrancis Knuckles that she had earmarked to organize the transfer of the Liberian capital from Monrovia in Montserrado County to Zekepa in Nimba County!
Speaker after speaker marveled at the distinguishing feature of Willis’ personality, aptly summed up by his son Willis III: “My father was a manager and organizer par excellence.”
Willis the younger recalled the bouts he had with his father over football. Willis, Jr. passionately supported Barrolle, while the son and the rest of the family were adherents of Invincible Eleven (I.E.). Willis, Jr., the democrat, allowed his son to have his way, though the father spent a lot of time striving to get his son to cross over. The son recalled how his father, as a leader of the Liberian Football Association (LFA) inspired many, including George Weah and Salinsa Debar on to international stardom.
Family members recalled how Willis, Jr. for 37 years served effectively as head of family, organizing, especially during the 14-year Liberian civil war the departures of scores of Knuckleses through Danane and Abidjan to asylum in the United States.
His daughters called him their “personal hero.” The Advance Committee of the United Methodist Church hailed him as one of its most effective workers and fundraisers.
But it was the Seys Church that was the greatest beneficiary of Willis’ fundraising prowess. He was still in exile in the USA when in the early 2000s he began organizing the rebuilding of the church following the war. That having been accomplished, the edifice was later destroyed by fire. As distressed Careysburgians tearfully crowded around the gutted edifice on the afternoon of the fire, Benoni Urey, then Mayor of Careysburg, recalled Willis having declared, “We will rebuild the church again.”
He immediately began organizing and strategizing the fundraising and within a few months he raised nearly a half million dollars, both nationally and internationally. The rebuilt church is far bigger, far more beautiful than the first.
The reason for this editorial is not so much to sing Willis Knuckles’ praises, but to remind everyone reading it, especially Liberians, that when our beneficent Creator gives someone a talent, he or she should use it for GOOD.
That is what Willis Knuckles did with his, and the world is better for it.