Tribute to Mrs. Juanita E. Mason Neal, My Unsung Heroine
By Gabriel I.H. Williams
In the Holy Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 says: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…” Verse 4 of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 also tells us that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
Today, family, friends, loved ones and acquaintances are going through a time of weeping and mourning due to the loss of Mrs. Juanita E. Mason Neal, who passed from labor to rest on June 26, 2016 in Accra, Ghana.
It is, therefore, my very sad duty but great honor to pay this tribute to Mrs. Neal, who I regard as my unsung heroine, because she had a transforming impact on my life as a young man transitioning from teenage to young adulthood in the early 1980s in Liberia. She was a devout Christian, a very cheerful giver, who served humanity and the Church with dedication and distinction.
Indeed, a very strong pillar of the Episcopal Church of Liberia, Trinity Cathedral in particular, has fallen. We have all lost a humanitarian whose support enabled me to acquire advanced knowledge in journalism in the United States, and this was my passage from the conditions of poverty.
I first met Mrs. Neal sometime around 1983/84 when she was the Managing Director of the then state-owned Liberia Timber and Plywood Corporation. I was a reporter in-training at the Daily Observer, then one of the leading daily newspapers in West Africa. A critical learning process of a trainee reporter was to accompany experienced reporters on assignments and gain exposure to the process of news reporting.
One afternoon, while all the experienced reporters were out of the office on assignments, a call came from the law office of Counselor Toye C. Bernard, requesting for the Daily Observer to send a press crew, which usually comprises a reporter and a photographer, to cover a press conference which had been hastily arranged at Counselor Bernard’s office.
Since I was the only one in the newsroom, Observer’s Managing Editor, Mr. Kenneth Y. Best, instructed News Editor T-Max Teah to give me a quick briefing on how to cover a press conference and send me along with one of the experienced photographers. I had previously accompanied some of the experienced reporters to cover a few press conferences.
Mrs. Neal’s press conference was intended to publicly refute allegations from certain prominent government officials who reportedly had gone to then Head of State Samuel K. Doe to have her replaced as Managing Director of the Liberia Plywood and Timber Corporation. She was accused of abandoning her post and traveling abroad without the consent and permission of the Head of State.
At the Conference, Mrs. Neal exhibited copies of a letter she sent to then Head of State Doe seeking permission to travel abroad and a reply to her letter from the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs, acknowledging her letter and granting her request to travel by directive of the Head of State.
My story on the press conference appeared in the following day’s edition of the Observer. On the afternoon of that day, Mrs. Neal came to the offices of the Observer, and she was ushered into the office of Mr. Best.
Very shortly after that, Mr. Best’s secretary called to inform me that Mr. Best wanted to see me in his office immediately. I was really scared as I knocked, opened the door and met Mrs. Neal sitting with him. She was elegantly attired in a business suit and beaming with smile when Mr. Best introduced me. She said, “Yes, I remember seeing this young man yesterday.” She said she had stopped by briefly to say thanks for her story in the Observer. “You did a very good job; I find your story to be the best of all the reports in the various newspapers,” she indicated.
Needless to say what a huge relief and confidence boost it was for such acknowledgement in front of my boss, especially given that this was one of the earliest major assignments that I covered unsupervised. Mr. Best maintained a culture of hard-work at the Observer and did not have tolerance for mediocrity.
Following this development, Mrs. Neal remained at her post, and she was later appointed as commissioner at the Bureau of Custom, Ministry of Finance. I would learn sometime later that certain prominent government officials who had the Head of State’s ear were trying to push her out because they wanted the job given to another person who was their preference.
Meanwhile, in 1984, the Observer was arbitrarily banned by the military regime for alleged anti-government reporting. The paper had been proscribed and some of its staff arrested and jailed multiple times previously under the regime.
As a young person just beginning to live on my own and self-supporting, the loss of a job was devastating. I strained to pay the rent for my little one room, which was probably not more than US $10-15.00 per month, while I woke up many mornings not knowing where I would get a meal from for that day.
I eventually landed a reporter job with the then newly-established Suntimes newspaper, led by legendary journalist Rufus Darpoh, following his release from the notorious Belle Yalla prison, where he was incarcerated by the military regime for alleged anti-government reporting. Unlike the Observer, salary was hardly forthcoming at Suntimes, which struggled to be on the market under severe financial strains and government suppression that also led to closure of the paper and detention of some of its staff multiple times. Despite the daunting challenges, Suntimes became a leading independent newspaper, which also provided a healthy atmosphere for staff professional progress.
One day, I saw a communication on the office bulletin board from the United Nations Headquarters in New York regarding the Daj Hammarskjold Memorial Fellowship, which is one of the most prestigious awards in international journalism. I immediately went to Mr. Darpoh and told him that I was interested in applying for the fellowship, through which between three to five journalists from the developing world are brought to the UN Headquarters annually for learning and mentoring in international affairs and to cover the annual session of the UN General Assembly. Mr. Darpoh encouraged me to apply but cautioned that such program was very competitive as those who qualified were mostly well-experienced editors and senior level journalists.
I prepared my application, the most critical part of which was an essay on the “Veto Power “exercised by five countries which are called the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. While a student at D. Twe High School in New Krutown, Monrovia, I read a book in the library titled, The Human Experience. That book provides a very comprehensive history of the world, including why the UN was established, its functions and organs. My essay recommended the need to reform the UN Charter regarding the exercise of veto power and to allow for more countries to become permanent members of the Security Council.
While on my way to lay readers’ practice at Trinity Cathedral on a Saturday morning, I visited the Telecom office, which I did frequently over the past few weeks as directed, to check whether there was a telex for me regarding the UN fellowship. This time, I was handed a telex, which read: “Congratulations,” stating that I had won first place in the fellowship. I became number one out of more than 380 journalists around the world competing for only four spots.
I went to the UN Monrovia office Monday morning, where I met with Mr. Ben Page, then director of public affairs at the UN office. Mr. Page promised to send an urgent message to the UN Headquarters to inform that I had been located. The board overseeing the fellowship was to meet that very Monday to decide upon an alternate candidate to replace me because they had sent two telexes previously to inform me but there was no reply because I did not get them. Efforts were also made to contact me through the diplomatic channel but Liberian diplomats refused to transmit the information because they said I did not work for a government media entity. This was simply because the Suntimes was regarded as an anti-government newspaper. The last telex, which I received, stated that I would be replaced if there was no response from me by that Monday.
Mr. Page encouraged me to keep praying and return to see him the following day during which he expected to receive a reply regarding me. Upon my return, Mr. Page congratulated me for the award and said every communication regarding my travel will now be channeled through his office, and that I needed to quickly obtain my passport and other requirements for travel.
After I went to the Foreign Ministry and found out that the cost of a passport was about US20 in addition to the cost for passport-sized photos, yellow book, etc., I literally froze. I had no money besides my bus passage to town. In that moment of helplessness, all I could say was, “Lord, help me.” And He heard and answered my prayer through Juanita Neal.
As I walked out of the Foreign Ministry praying, a thought occurred to me to look for Mrs. Neal at the Finance Ministry. I didn’t know what to expect because I had never dealt with her regarding such personal matter and I didn’t have an appointment.
When I was finally ushered into her office, I explained the purpose of my visited and presented her the telex. With her characteristic smile, she congratulated me, reached into her purse and squeezed some US dollar bills into my hand. She said she hoped this would take care of my travel preparations. She told me to make sure to see her before departure for her to get me what she called some travel change.
The amount she gave covered the costs of my travel preparations. Before my departure, I visited her again and it was she who gave me my first traveler’s checks. Since then, she was always thoughtful and helpful whenever I went to her seeking guidance and help.
Because of Mrs. Neal’s support, I became the first Liberian journalist to serve as a Daj Hammarskjold Scholar since the fellowship was established in 1961. The second Liberian to ever win the award was Ms. Wede Williams of Frontpage Africa in 2012. The fellowship was my breakthrough to prosperity.
In her passing, my sadness is compounded because circumstances will not permit me to travel to Monrovia to join family and loved ones in paying last respect to my heroine.
May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.
Gabriel I. H. Williams
Minister Counselor for Press & Public Affairs
Embassy of Liberia
5201 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20011
Tel: (202) 723-0437, ext. 119
Fax: (202) 723-0436