It was Arthur Gordon, famously known as “Art” Linkletter, a Canadian-born American radio and television personality (July 17, 1912 – May 26, 2010), who said: “There are four stages of man: infancy, childhood, adolescence…and obsolescence”. In all through these stages, the first two – infancy and childhood- though form the building blocks of a man’s life, are hardly well documented like the events of the other stages of his life. That is why it is safe to conclude that growing old, gracefully, is something to cherish, especially when you have played your part so well in life. For Prince Henry Olukayode Odukomaiya, who clocked 80 last Thursday, July 10, 2014, he has played his part well. If you had come across him during his busy days as a journalist, of course, I have no apology for not saying his active days in Nigeria journalism, because the man is damn still active. Not ‘obsolete’. Not expired either. The story of his meteoric rise in his chosen profession has been properly placed in the public domain by the man himself in series of interviews in the newspapers.
Odukomaiya is a product of the late Babatunde Jose hard-nosed journalism school. After his stint with the Daily Times, where he rose to be the Editor of the paper, he was invited by the late business mogul, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, otherwise known as M.K.O. Abiola, to pioneer his Concord group of newspapers as the first Editor-in-Chief. A few years after his exit from Concord, he was again invited by multi-millionaire businessman, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, to set up and become the first Editor-in-Chief of Champion newspapers. You may wonder why Odukomaiya was such a hot cake that was sought after by every investor that wanted to put his money in the newspaper business. The reason is simple. Odukomaiya is a thoroughbred journalist of the highest professional hue who handles news publishing with a fiendish fervor that would make investors and practising journalists anywhere in the world green with envy.
My first encounter with Baba, as Odukomaiya was then called, was in 1988. On the day I met him, I had gone to the corporate headquarters of the Champion newspapers in Lagos, armed with a letter from the late Mr. Frank Russel, and addressed to the late Alhaji Jamiu Fola Ashiru, who was then an Executive Director with Champion newspapers. As soon as Alhaji Ashiru opened the letter, he asked me a few questions which I promptly answered. There and then, he led me out of his office to Baba’s office. We met Baba who was busy working on some materials on his table. Nevertheless, he took time off to listen to Alhaji Ashiru who introduced me to him and showed him the letter from Mr Russel. Baba asked me a few questions too after which he invited Emma Agu, the editor. I was later told to report for work within a few days.
I had a challenging but highly rewarding engagement in the almost three years I spent in Champion newspapers from December 1988 to June 1991. Baba was a no-nonsense administrator, thoroughly professional and very strict on matters relating to the ethics of the journalism profession. He led by example. He was always the last to leave office and often returned early every day. On a normal day, Baba resumed at work at about 8 a.m and remained permanently in the office, except there were official engagements to be attended to outside the office, till about 8:30 pm, Monday to Friday. On Saturdays, he came in around noon and stayed till about 8:30pm.
On Sundays, he came in immediately after Sunday service at about 1 to 2pm and remained till around 8:30pm. During his days at the helm of affairs, the rule was that whoever was driving out of the compound should open his car booth to enable the security men to undertake a check before driving out. Most evenings, Baba drove himself. As soon as he got to the gate in his lemon-coloured Peugeot 505 saloon car, Baba would stop and personally come down to open his booth for the security men to do their job. He never missed it.
There was no lazing around whenever Baba was in the office and everybody knew this. Whenever he was coming in, his presence was always heralded by commotion, particularly among those who would have gathered at the reception area doing nothing. As soon as his car was sighted, you would find people falling over one another to escape to their various offices.
For members of the editorial department, each day was like writing examination. Usually, Baba held a copy of the first edition of the newspaper and went through from the front page to the back page as a routine every day. In the process, he did a lot of markings with either green or red biro to point out errors which might either be in the casting of the headlines, typographical or punctuation errors, transposition, wrong bylines, wrong photo illustrations, bad captions, wrong application of in-house styles and many others.
So, naturally, even if you call yourself an editor, there was another superior editor somewhere in the person of Baba who was ever willing and ready to summon you at the sight of the slightest mistake or error in the newspaper. Depending on how grievous the error or mistake was, you could either earn a verbal warning, especially for a first offender or a suspension or even a sack or dismissal, whatever the case may be. If you are in the production department, if the error or mistake warranted using additional materials like films, plates and others, you were instantly surcharged. That strictness kept everybody on his toes as long as you wanted to remain a staff of Champion newspapers. Here was a man who took active interest in whatever went on in the company from the highest quarters to the bottom of the company’s organogram.
However, Baba’s work does not terminate in the office or during official hours alone. He carries his work to his house where he maintains an office complete with all gadgets. This was the area I had the greatest of my challenges. Every evening, on his way out of the compound, Baba stopped by in my office located on the ground floor to oversee what was going on at the proof–reading section and also to find out how quick production was going. As he made to leave, the usual refrain was: “Dele, give me the first call at 2:30 am. I have a lot to clear on my table”. What this means is that though he had closed for the day in the office, he would want to be woken up from sleep at 2:30 am in other to do some work. This could either be some office work, simply reading or putting things together for another hectic day in office.
Baba is a workaholic. From morning till night, when he closed, he was always working on his desk. He ate right there in his office. Some afternoons, when he felt like relaxing, especially on Sundays, you could enter his office and see some fried, peppered ‘goat meat’ on a saucer on his table with a bottle of ice-cold, chilled beer, usually Harp, waiting to be gulped down. He is kind, humane with a listening ear. At the same time, Baba does not brook any nonsense as he is quick to temper but his anger subsides as quickly as it rises. That is Baba’s nature and I am told he is still like that. Just don’t play any pranks with him and you will be the best of friends.
Mary Kathleen Turner, popularly known as Kathleen Turner, 60-year-old (born on June 19, 1954), American actress, singer and stage director, once shrugged off an inquisitive reporter who was all over her determined to know her age, by saying: “Professionally, I have no age”. Odukomaiya’s exceptional contributions to Nigerian journalism practice must have attracted eminent Nigerians who gathered in Lagos last Thursday to celebrate with him as he joined the Octogenarian club. Though, now an Octogenarian, professionally, Baba is ageless!