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Holiday Reflections - 2003-12-23

It seems that certain times of the year just naturally lend themselves to reflection and the counting of blessings. And this is one such time, regardless of faith, beliefs or religion.

Indeed, the ole Emperor has much to be thankful for as one year ends and the new one begins. First and foremost, the continued good health of family and friends is something to be cherished and never taken for granted.

I try not to fall into that trap -- a commitment unfortunately made much easier by the loss of two close friends and colleagues during 2003. I'm referring to two members of my VOA family -- Richard "King" Kotey and Yohannes Haileyesus -- two men of immense talent and journalistic commitment.

Richard, or "The Gallant Ghanaian" as we all affectionately called him, was a person whose charisma and work ethic truly set him apart. To know Da King was to both love and respect him. And I don't use those emotionally charged words lightly.

With Richard's passing the Voice of America, in general, and, specifically English to Africa lost a broadcaster and communicator nonpareil. But even more importantly, Ghana and Africa was left without one of its leading citizens who untiringly believed that an unfettered and dispassionate dissemination of information remained the birthright of all, regardless of position or privilege.

Richard made an indelible imprint on lives of all he encountered, a permanency not washed away even with the tears of parting.

Where Richard was out-going and highly visible in thought and deed, Yohannes was quiet and introspective but no less the consummate professional. I recall having entirely differing reactions to both men during the hiring process. Richard's value was much more readily quantifiable -- it was pretty much a case of what you saw being what you could expect.

Not so with Yohannes. I quickly learned that Yohannes' quiet manner was merely the patina covering an intense desire to succeed and learn. And this he surely did as a valued producer/sportscaster on the three-man morning Daybreak team.

The final decision to hire Yohannes was influenced in great measure by my 92-year-old mom, also affectionately known as the "chicken soup lady." She had drummed into me the old saying that still waters run deep. And this indeed turned out to be the case with Yohannes.

Throughout his years on Daybreak, Yohannes let his strong work ethic and enthusiasm speak volumes for him. To his everlasting credit, I never once heard a fellow staffer speak ill of Yohannes. He was the sort of man you just instinctively liked and respected -- sentiments lovingly expressed by the throng of mourners attending his emotion-laden funeral.

Partially balancing off those losses is the reality that other enduring relationships with former English to Africa colleagues remain vibrant and never closer. I think of Fritzi Depew, who remains one of my closest confidantes and dearest friend. Then there's Jumpin' Joe De Capua without whom or exaggeration the branch would have a much harder time functioning. Aah, Da Sonny Man, is there a most dedicated or talented sportscaster out there? Sonny continues to transport our listeners to new heights of sports broadcasting excellence while remaining "a true blue mate" in the process.

I mentioned three persons in detail but I could just as easily mentioned most everyone in English to Africa from Nicole Lindsey to the Beagle Man, Bill Eagle, to the Rods, Thomas and Murray. They and all those not named are true family, remembered often and with great fondness.

I'm also thankful that sometimes nice things happen to nice people who persevere through good times... and bad. One such person who springs to mind is Mary Onyali-Omagbemi who continues to astound with her exploits on and off the track.

Gee, it's hard for my old brain to recount when I first met Mary. That's meant as no disrespect for Mary. I can tell you that it occurred long before Mary acquired a hyphenated surname – long, long before. While I fail to remember the exact date of our first meeting, I recall the circumstances.

That's the easy part because with Mary it was always the same -- a friendly smile and total cooperation from a gracious competitor, win or lose. And, believe you me, that's quite difficult to do consistently what with hordes of reporters constantly swarming around and shoving microphones and oft-times stupid questions in front of you. But Mary was always the picture of grace and self-control, no matter the circumstances.

As Mary always accommodated my journalistic requests I'm happy to say that I was occasionally able to return the favor. I recall one time in Lagos when Mary was having a particularly hard time getting her "appearance" money out of the track officials. We had a rather short trackside chat during which this dispute surfaced. As it was not an off-the-record revelation I mentioned in my reportage and before we both knew it Mary had her funds and she went on to further enhance her growing sports legend. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Journalists like myself have to be careful not to bandy about terms like legend cavalierly. But if any one woman can lay claim to the title of Africa's greatest female sprinter ever it's Mary Onyali-Omagbemi.

For you doubting Thomases out there, let's look at just some of her many accomplishments on the African, Commonwealth, World and Olympic stages. Not only did she medal at all levels of competition, excepting the worlds, Mary has maintained a consistent level of excellence since 1986. It was in that year when she burst on to the scene, winning a two hundred meters silver medal at the world junior championships. I was also on hand at the 1987 All Africa Games when she went one better, dazzling the crowds by winning gold over one hundred and two hundred meters. Realizing that Mary was one of those exceptional athletes who graces the sporting stage only occasionally I began calling her Africa's sprint queen -- a nickname that fortunately stuck.

As an unabashed fan and admirer of Mary throughout her illustrious career, I was to receive possibly my greatest thrill a few short weeks ago, just when I was beginning to wonder if Mary had gone gracefully into retirement. After all, who could have blamed her for wanting to devote all her attention to her husband and now six-year-old daughter.

But then came the phone call from Da Sonny Man that Africa's sprint queen had yet again swept aside all pretenders to her throne with a spectacular three gold medal performance at the All Africa Games in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. I can just imagine Mary's elation, not just in capturing another three gold medals but doing so before throngs of her fellow Nigerians. And, true to form, Mary enhanced Sonny's already stellar coverage of the games by readily agreeing to a long in-depth interview with him and his colleagues, Segun " Dot On The Spot" Adeyemi and Nnamdi "The Prince of Pugilistics" Moweta.

So seventeen years after it all began with a silver medal at the 1986 world junior championships, the incomparable Mary Onyali-Omagbemi still sits securely upon her throne as Africa's reigning sprint queen. And long may the legend reign!

My final reflection this holiday season revolves around you. I sincerely hope all went terrifically for you during 2003. But if things left a little bit to be desired just remember that it all begins a new come January first, 2004. So just like all the folks mentioned above, you, too, have the seeds of greatness in you. Now all you have to do is to get out of your own way and let good things happen!

Happy holidays, dear friends, and here's to a happy, meaningful and prosperous New Year. I'll see you in 2004.