By Isaac Thompson, founding sub-editor
I remember that day 40 years ago as if it was yesterday.
It was mid-January, 1981, when I walked into the offices of a yet-to-be-launched newspaper at Crown Hill in Monrovia with an application for the position of a reporter.
I had worked for a couple of weeklies since 1979, just before the “4/14 blues”, the nickname for the April 14 riots that rocked the relatively sturdy foundations of Liberia’s political and social order and triggered a series of events, including the April 12 military coup a year later, that would culminate in one of the worst civil wars in Africa a decade later.
I had started with The Sunday People and the Liberian Inaugural, two sister papers owned Daniel Draper Jr. under the Liberian Inaugural Corporation, before decamping to the Weekend News, another weekly produced by Carlton Karpeh, a former diplomat. They were good gigs but boring, marked by days of tediously scouring for stories to be published at the end of the week; I wanted something more exciting.
Then came the rumor about an upcoming daily newspaper that would compete with the government’s quasi daily, the New Liberian, which came out four times a week. According to the rumor mill, the brain behind this daring (some said reckless) venture barely a year after a violent coup was a former assistant minister at the ministry of information (publishers of the New Liberian), who had given up a lucrative job as information director of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Kenya to pursue his dream and passion. He had, so the rumor went, rejected all-wise counsel to “start small” with a weekly and only later work his way to a daily once the political situation in the country “normalized”.
When I arrived at the office, I was ushered into an inner office, where a man with a fullface beard cheerfully welcome me as Kenneth Yarkpawolo Best. The interview that followed was a cross between an interrogation and a chat. At the end of it, he handed me a yellow pad and asked me to write a sample editorial.
I impressed him enough for him to say: “I think you’re better than a reporter. I’ll make you an editor”.
And just like that my professional fortunes changed!
I started work a few weeks later as the sub-editor, working under the editor-in-chief, the veteran journalist, Rufus M. Darpoh, alongside other editors for layout, photography, art, local news, foreign news, sports, women’s page, and features. I played the role of a mid-fielder between Rufus and the other editors as well as reporters.
The paper became an instant hit, the go-to source for timely and balanced news. The staff evolved into a harmonious team from a disparate group of people from different backgrounds. Yarkpawolo (as I preferred to call him) was, of course, the boss but he easily and frequently fraternized with the troops, barging into offices, engaging in small talk or jokes, and whipping things into order when he had to; he ran a tight ship and over time we all learned a lot from him – professionalism, integrity, modesty, and above all tenacity of purpose. (“Aren’t you going to fight for what’s yours?” he once asked me, when I decided to give up on something. I changed my mind, and those words have shaped my thinking since then.
The newsroom was sleepy for most of the day and then turned into a madhouse in the evening, when reporters were back from the field pounding off stories from their typewriters. T-Maxon Teah, the news editor and self-described Ayatollah, would sometimes stand in the middle of the room and threaten to “destrrrroy” any reporter who failed to meet his high expectations. It was all in jest, of course, but the message was clear and between feigned autocracy and professionalism we got the job done.
Rufus was both our boss and a big brother, approachable to everyone. Occasionally, he would leave the office in my hands with the excuse that as editor-in-chief he had to “drink beer with policymakers to get ideas to write editorials”. As a journalist, he had tormented presidents from Tubman to Tolbert and paid a high price for it with a stint at the famous Bella Yallah prison. We learned a lot from him.
At 21, the youngest editorial staff, I found the responsibilities of my office to be both overwhelming but fulfilling. I honed my journalistic skills and also learned to manage minor staff disputes, asserting my authority without being overbearing. I enforced strict editorial standards, encouraging reporters to read as widely as possible, in addition to using the office library, which included old newspapers from airlines.
Some of my standards were unpopular but effective and years later some of the reporters would concede that they indeed benefited them. For example, I corrected major errors just once and explained to reporters why; if the errors were repeated later, I simply deprived the reporter of a by-line, the equivalent of a “death sentence” in journalism. No amount of pleading could make me change my mind.
Happily, Yarkpawolo and his wife and general manager, Mae Gene, were strong believers in continuous improvement, and we got great doses of it. A retired British journalist, a local TV newscaster, and the author Wilton Sankawulo all came in at various times to train us.
That’s how we gradually built the most popular newspaper in the early 1980s and a core of highly competent journalists who came into their own as the decade drew to a close. Most of these journalists held the fort at the height of the Liberian civil war and did a yeoman’s job.
But it wasn’t all work and no play. Our football team, the Observers, played a number of friendlies with the New Liberian. Out of office, we socialized a lot, and when I bought my first car, a second-hand VW Brazilia, we took to painting the proverbial town red on weekends, prowling the diplomatic community, which became famous for its wild parties, and the legendary Panjebota night club.
Much has been written about the hell the Observer went through under the Doe government (both military and civilian), including our incarceration at the Post Stockade in June 1981, so I won’t bore the reader with any repetitions. (A more detailed recounting is offered elsewhere in this collection).
But I remember a discussion I had with a police officer, one Massaquoi, while we were at the Stockade and its uncanny implications for a post-war Liberia today. Massaquoi, also a student at the University of Liberia, had written a term paper on world revolutions, which his neighbor mistook for a plot to stage a counter-revolution against Doe. The neighbor reported him and Massaquoi was sent to the Stockade.
He was very knowledgeable and I enjoyed chatting with him. One day, our discussion turned to civil wars in Africa and he, quoting a French philosopher, said that “people fight wars and in the end stand in the ruins and wonder what they were fighting for”. I have thought many times about this quote since the end of the Liberian civil war, which pauperized the country and left it in a seemingly intractable mess. The lessons go beyond Liberia to other countries whose leaders might think war is the answer to their differences.
Looking back at my Observer experience – a “kid” among adults, government officials and diplomats alike – fills me with pride for reasons that most of my colleagues at the time didn’t know and still don’t. In a forthcoming biography, I’ll throw more light on that. But I remain grateful that Yarkpawolo gave me that break that day in 1981. His impact on my professional and moral development has endured and I never fail to pay tribute to him whenever I speak to young people about career growth: The quality of your boss matters.
I can’t end this brief recollection without a moment of silence for those of my colleagues from those early days who, sadly, have died over the years: Melvin Reeve (our foreign news editor and an accomplished trumpeter); T-Maxon Teah (the self-described Ayatollah, who instilled friendly fear in his reporters and got the best out of them); Khlon Hinneh (our sports editor, known also for his spotless sense of fashion); Cynthia Greaves (women’s page editor, vivacious and outgoing); Sam Van Kesselly (type-setter and a smooth operator who worked his way up to a reporter in later years); Rufus Darpoh (laid back but always in charge); Stanton Peabody (an editorialist par excellence, with a fondness for dropping f-bombs at will); and Varney Passawe, a features writer, whose clarity of thought and force of argumentation made his articles compelling reading.
May they all rest in perfect peace.
I wish the Daily Observer another 40 years of cutting-edge journalism and national service. Over to you, Bai!