Liberians Bid Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman Farewell

By Winsley S. Nanka

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 22, 2004

Middletown, New Jersey - Hundreds of exiled Liberians including academics, alumni and former students of the University of Liberia, former Liberian government officials and friends joined the Grimes, Brown and Sherman families on June 19, 2004 to bid Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman 77, the former president of the University of Liberia farewell. Dr. Sherman sunset on June 3, 2004 after a period of illness in New Jersey. She served as president of the University of Liberia from 1978-1984. Before then, she served in various capacities at the university including Dean, Teachers College and Vice-President for Academic Affairs.

Dr. Sherman was remembered in the various tributes delivered by the representatives of the University of Liberia, the University of Liberia Alumni Association in the Americas, the representative of the class of 1943, the College of West Africa (CWA), among others, as “a courageous educator and scholar” who dedicated her life “to quality education at the University of Liberia; and justice and the rule of law in Liberia”. The Official Gazette issued by the government of Liberia described Dr. Sherman as “an outstanding scholar; academician, and leader” who will be missed by the people of Liberia.

The President of the University of Liberia Alumni Associations in the Americas, Pennsylvania Chapter described Africa’s first female president of a university in a moving tribute as a “beacon of hope, a symbol of courage, a character to emulate, a visionary, a campaigner for justice, a noble leader in the truest sense and one of Liberia’s finest”. The alumni association said Dr. Sherman’s passing is a setback to the people of Liberia.

Dr. Sherman is survived by J. Rudolph Grimes, former Secretary of State, the Republic of Liberia, her children, grand children and many relatives and friends. Funeral services for Dr. Sherman took place at Christ Church, Middletown, New Jersey and interment followed thereafter at the Bayview Cemetery in Middletown, New Jersey.

Liberian academics and former government officials present at the funeral services included Dr. Amos Sawyer, former Interim President, the Republic of Liberia, Othello Gongah, the former Minister of Education, Dr. Patrick L M Sayon, former president, the University of Liberia, Dr. James Tarpeh, former Vice President, Academic Affairs, the University of Liberia, Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh, former Vice President, the University of Liberia. Others were Dr. Abraham L. James, former Chairman, Department of political science, University of Liberia, Dr. Romeo Horton, former Dean, College of Business and Public Administration, Dr. Jabaru Calon, former Professor, Liberia College, Anthony V. Kesselly, former Acting Director University Relations, and Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, former Executive Assistant to Dr. Amos Sawyer. Also present was a representative of the Liberian Embassy in Washington, among others.

Below is the full text of the tribute delivered by Abraham Massalay, President, the University of Liberia Alumni Associations in the Americas, Pennsylvania Chapter:

University of Liberia Alumni Association in the Americas
Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman
Former President, University of Liberia

Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman nurtured a love for knowledge and her pursuit of learning took her to the University of Liberia. Her love for wisdom and her commitment to the service of people kept her at the University.

She left the University of Liberia in 1984, after many years of service when the August 22nd Invasion of the University challenged her sense of decency. Her leaving was because she could only serve as a principled person and a caring leader, and she would stand for nothing less. The University’s loss was Liberia’s loss, because Dr. Sherman soon found herself serving more than 3000 miles away in the United States of America.

Dr. Sherman took office when most of the University’s buildings and facilities were cramped on the Capitol Hill Campus and she committed her efforts to developing the facilities at Fendall. During her administration, facilities at Fendall were extended to expand the College of Agriculture and Forestry, to construct and occupy a new College of Science and Technology building, and to provide residential facilities for the faculty at Fendall. This served as a renewed commitment to the growth of the University of Liberia.

Faculty and staff development was facets of University welfare Dr. Sherman fostered. She cultivated and assured a relationship with every organization that could provide scholarships for her faculty and staff development, and many Liberians. The U. S. Educational and Cultural Foundation, IIE, and USAID scholarships were among the many that benefited Liberians. It is also important to say here that scholarships went to Liberians from every walk of life.

The Book “Profiles in Courage” by John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave examples of responses of people to tempting situations in the United States. In Liberia, no situation was more tempting for the University than that of the 1984 crisis when a professor was jailed and the University threatened. The University Council, the body of senior administrators and senior faculty, met and came out with a position paper. The military government headed by Chairman Doe reacted, and the story of August 22, 1984, shall forever reverberate in the minds of surviving Liberians and the history of Liberia. Dr. Sherman did not shrink in her responsibilities. She was the leader, and she was very brave.

In a soft-spoken voice she would say, “I would see what I can do.” Then she did something. Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman always did something. You may not have always agreed with her, but her commitment was to serve and to serve well. She did not believe that a driver should be whipped for his wrong-doings, even if he was only a chauffeur, nor did she believe that a University professor should be locked up for pursuing his thoughts and exercising his academic rights to query. She always stood up.

Dr. Sherman helped the Faculty and Staff in Fendall to establish the University Primary School to assure that our young children who were resident in Fendall received quality education. With the financial commitment of parents to the establishment of the school, she was gracious in providing an unused building to host the school. She visited the school and interacted with the children and the teachers. This was the person who was Dr. Sherman – She loved her family, and her family extended to include the entire University family and beyond.

Dr. Sherman’s life will be remembered by two defining facts. The men and women who attended the university especially during her tenure and the Liberians in general will remember her as a brave woman who demanded justice and the rule of law in the face of evil when the Samuel Doe military regime falsely arrested Professor Amos Sawyer. She was also committed to quality higher education in Liberia.

These defining facts of Dr. Sherman’s life served as life changing events for those that attended the University of Liberia in the earlier 1980s. The first defining moment came in 1984, when the military regime of Samuel K. Doe arrested Dr. Amos Sawyer, an academic and Dean of Liberia College on the bogus charge of his involvement in an attempt to overthrow the military dictatorship.

Dr. Sherman’s Administration courageously denounced the illegal and unwarranted arrest of Dr. Amos Sawyer and demanded the release of Dr. Sawyer without delay. Importantly, the Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman Administration supported the boycott of classes by the students at the University in support of the release of Dr. Sawyer. Dr. Sherman’s principled stand in support of justice and the rule of law cost her the presidency of the University of Liberia.

Long before this encounter with the military regime, Dr. Sherman had stood as an unshakable fortress in the fight against the manipulation of the University. She had relentlessly resisted the Military Junta's manifold attempts in various forms to gnaw away at the prestigious standards set at the University. It should be noted that at the time attempts from without the University to push down the standards were as abundant as they were persistent.

There were not many persons in Liberia in the 1980s who could summon the courage to stand up to the excesses of the Samuel Doe regime. When others found it fashionable to remain silent in the face of injustice, Dr. Sherman saw it her patriotic duty to demand justice. When others found it fashionable to turn their eyes away from the arbitrariness of the powers that were and instead denounce the students at the University of Liberia whose only crime was their support for justice, Dr. Sherman stood on the side of justice.

Inarguably, Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman was an educator and academic committed to quality education at the University of Liberia. Her commitment to quality education put her in a special place in the history of the University of Liberia. During her tenure as president, she upgraded the quality of instruction at the university by hiring research professors from West African countries to lecture at the university. The University of Liberia became a true “light in darkness”. Under her leadership the University of Liberia found an admirable and respectable place among other higher African institutions of learning. As an example, the University hosted the Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors, and Presidents (COREVIP) of Universities in the West African Sub-region in the early 1980s.

Even after Dr. Sherman left Liberia prematurely, she did not stop identifying with the university. Ma Mary supported the formation of the University of Liberia alumni association in the United States. She encouraged our effort and sent us a roster of alumni from 1864 to 1980. She expressed her concerns about the University during our discussions with her, and said she would be supportive of our efforts in whichever way possible. She expressed her regret that she could not attend the Alumni Association’s first conference in Philadelphia because of family reasons.

Dr. Sherman’s home going is a great loss to those of us who benefited from the quality education her Administration offered at the University of Liberia and to our entire nation. Even students who entered the University after her departure found it very easy to establish the connection with her. To some of us who did not personally interact with her, we respect her and cherish her memories because she stood for what we believe is the right and noble thing for our country. She was a beacon of hope, a symbol of courage, a character to emulate, a visionary, a campaigner for justice, a noble leader in the truest sense and one of Liberia’s finest. She was committed to serving her nation as if it was her personal matter. In deed, she put service to country above self. She showed service to community and true voluntarism, virtues very scarce in our Liberian communities. Liberia’s problem was her personal problem and the University’s dream was her dream.

The University of Liberia and its many alumni will dearly miss Dr. Sherman because of her contribution to the cause of higher education in Liberia as well as her principled stand for academic freedom, social justice and peace.

For us alumni, the only lasting tribute we can make to Dr. Sherman is to continue the work left behind to help the University of Liberia and Liberia in general. Alumni and friends of the university can show their love for Dr. Sherman by supporting meaningful initiatives to help our Alma Mata. Organizing UL alumni chapters in our states, identifying with alumni efforts to provide scholarships and other help to the brothers and sisters at our highest institution of learning are the true tributes we can make to her memory. She would be very pleased if many of us who benefited from the education we received at the University of Liberia could support the institution to make it the world class institution she envisioned it.

In order to appropriately memorialize this woman, we are proposing that a street on the main campus or Fendall, a department or building at the University be named in her honor. The University of Liberia Alumni Association has already agreed to rename its scholarship program in honor of Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown-Sherman. We have also agreed to contribute to the publication of her memoir, an initiative being undertaken by the family.

The French writer Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupery said, “when the body sinks into death, the essence of man is revealed. Man is a knot, a web, and a mesh into which relationships are tied. Only those relationships matter. The body is an old crock that nobody will miss. I have never known a man to think of himself when dying. Never.”

We are convinced that when Dr. Sherman was having her final moments, she was thinking about the University of Liberia and the country she love so dearly. She wish like all true compatriots the work she has left behind will continue until the day the land, our land is free, prosperous, bright, just, serene, bountiful and is at peace with itself.

May Her Soul Rest in Perfect Peace and Light Perpetual Shine upon Her!