Willis DeFrancis Knuckles: Gifted Organizer, Sports Enthusiast, Football Promoter, Devoted Friend

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In the space of just a few days Liberia has lost two of her great  sons—Dr. Sam Brisbane, who succumbed to Ebola on July 26, and now Willis D. Knuckles, a gifted organizer, great sports enthusiast, football promoter, husband, father and friend.

We have written some about Dr. Brisbane who, for nearly a half century, used his considerable knowledge, experience and compassion as a medical doctor healing the sick.  But Willis Knuckles again? Good Lord, what is happening to Liberia?

Willis had been a rising star ever since he graduated in 1963 from the College of West Africa, Dr. Brisbane’s alma mater, too, and the following year entered Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University).  

Because he was a good student, he dared Chemistry, in which he took the Bachelor of Science degree.  But most people knew that Willis, the consummate political animal, was not really interested in chemistry.  After all, being a people person with   extraordinary organizing skills, he got elected president of Cuttington’s Students Association.  His talents led him straight to the State Department under Secretary of State J. Rudolph Grimes, who wasted no time in securing for this presumed  future diplomat a fellowship to study International Affairs at Grimes’ and Ernest Eastman’s alma mater, Columbia University.  Who knows what Secretary Grimes was thinking?  He probably foresaw in this young man, with his gifts in organizing and his natural flair for diplomacy and politics, a future Secretary of State, even a top position in the United Nations. 

Willis gratefully accepted the fellowship to Columbia, but lasted there only a semester and, to Secretary Grimes’ chagrin and pain, returned home.  Not long thereafter Willis accepted the position as Administrative Assistant (Chief of Staff) to Liberian   Vice President James E. Greene, a job Willis successfully executed until cancer killed his boss. 

Willis later joined a Ministry where his heart was at—Youth and Sports (MYS), rising to Deputy Minister.  While he and others were in Ghana for a Lone Star match, the 1980 coup occurred and Willis sought asylum in the United States.

Moved, however, by his passion for home, Willis returned to Liberia in 1982.  One day he visited the Daily Observer newspaper to attempt publishing a football story.  “Write the story yourself,” the publisher told him, which Knuckles effortlessly did on the spot with speed, in the impeccable English of a seasoned journalist.  The publisher immediately offered him the post of Managing Editor which, after consultations with his dear wife Hawa, he accepted.  Not long thereafter, the BBC’s Robin White called the Observer publisher asking for recommendations for a BBC Monrovia  correspondent.  Without hesitation the Observer publisher recommended Knuckles, whom Robin hired immediately.  Soon, Willis’ smooth, eloquent voice was heard daily on BBC, not different from that corporation‘s leading and most experienced correspondents!

But when, following the fifth closure of the Daily Observer by Head of State Samuel K. Doe in January 1985, Knuckles, in a comprehensive and lucid dispatch, reported the story on BBC, he was arrested and imprisoned at the Post Stockade and even beaten.

But following his release, this Careysburg aristocrat decided that the twin sisters of Journalism and Jail were not quite the thing for him.  He immediately saw the need to reorganize something that was far closer to his heart, the Liberia Football Association (LFA).  Soon, even Knuckles’ jailer, Samuel Doe, recognized his senior brother’s talents and their mutually shared passion for football, and appointed Willis LFA Chairman.  The two worked closely together to revive football in Liberia.

As our Sports Editor Omari Jackson wrote in yesterday’ Observer, Knuckles contributed so much to the sport that it was he who helped inspire the George Weah generation in football excellence.

A dedicated Christian and indefatigable church worker, Willis Knuckles used his exceptional organizational talents to organize two major undertakings to rebuild his beloved church in Careysburg, Seys United Methodist.  It was those same skills that he used to help elect twice Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

All of this and more were what Secretary Grimes foresaw in this talented young man just out of Cuttington in the late 1960s.  But who can question the Master of our fate? As the church’s great hymn reminds us:

                   I know not what the future hath,

                   Of marvel or surprise.

                   I only know that life and death,

                   God’s mercy underlies.   

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