Remembering Samuel N. Burnette: A Personal Appreciation


By Benedict Wisseh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 10, 2006


On July 25th, I was home late in the afternoon reading, the New York Times when I was interrupted by a telephone call from a female friend. As I commenced to say hello, she interrupted me and said: “I just heard about Sam Burnette, did you?” This was sufficient for me to know that she had called to tell me that Mr. Burnette had died. I was shocked and unable to say anything. For about three minutes. I held the telephone to my ears as tears streamed down from my eyes. Why did I take his death seriously? What sort of man was he?

No amount of words can be shaped to describe the altruism of Mr. Burnette to a stranger. As a pedestrian football player and fan around town, I knew Mr. Burnette from a distance as IE’s sponsor, whether it was at the football stadium or in his automobile driving by on Broad Street. But in 1976, after I played my very first game at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium for my beloved Bameh against Ghana’s Cornerstones, Mr. Burnette was one of the first persons to shake my hands. He asked for my name and, to my embarrassment, heaped encomiums on me for playing a good game. At the end of our conversation, he invited me to have lunch with him at his house in Sinkor. Although I heard him clearly, on my way home to West Point, I was in disbelief that I had been invited by Sam Burnette to have lunch with him. My friends were also in disbelief when I told them about the invitation. They speculated that, perhaps, Mr. Burnette wanted for me to play for IE. On a Monday in September, after I left school, Mr. Burnette and I rode in his car to his residence.

The dish prepared that day for lunch was potato greens and rice. I had anticipated that our conversation would extensively be dominated by football. But it was not, perhaps, because the strength of my lucky performance against the Ghanaians did not constitute a plausible resume to talk about. The only comment he made about football was that “your performance was excellent and if you keep your head straight, you will be a good player.” He asked me about my parents and how well I was doing in school. At the end of the visit, he gave me $100.00 and, to my shock, said nothing about I joining IE. He only counseled me to be disciplined. This was strange to me because Liberian football teams’ presidents were known to give other players money and request for them to play for their teams. At the beginning of 1977 I left Bameh for Barrolle.

But in less than four months, I became disenchanted with Barrolle’s leadership and contemplated returning to Bameh. The rumor of my imminent departure from Barrolle reached Mr. Burnette and, promptly, he talked to and convinced me to join IE. This was the only time he ever talked to me about playing for IE. He offered for me to live in his house but I turned it down. However, he and I agreed on conditions for my joining IE and I became an IE player. As arranged, I lived across from his house and, every morning, I rode in his automobile to school. There were some mornings when I was five to ten minutes late to go to his house for my journey to the gates of Chartlotte Tolbert High School. But he waited for me and, with a sense of humor, warned me once that “if I am dismissed by President Tolbert for getting to work late, I will bring a lawsuit against you.” I ate at his house every day until I left for the States in 1980 on an athletic scholarship secured for me by Marbue Richards. Before the civil war, whenever I went home, I stayed at his house.

What sort of man was Mr. Burnette? The living, by conventions, are bound to speak well of the dead even vis-à-vis plausible evidence that speaks otherwise. Can the same be done for Mr. Burnette? No, this cannot and must not be done for him because the deal of his relationship to footballers and the downtrodden is self-evidence. Hence, there is no burden placed on my shoulders by the demands of funeral conventions to surreptitiously embellish his goodwill toward others. The death of Mr. Burnette is no simple loss. The extent of his being that he so humbly restrained, can now truly be disclosed. It is sad that only with the passing of one do we commence to truly sense how profound a force one was. Although he was touched by the seduction of the privileges of the elite as an Americo-Liberian and a government official, Mr. Burnette never distanced himself from football players and the poor. They embraced him as he embraced them. But he held a special place in the hearts and souls of football players because of what he did for them. He was one of them. He came from them as player and captain of the Liberian national team, the Lone Stars. And from student, football player, government official, and to aging ordinary person, he was always in the middle of everything that affected footballers. He went to West Point, New Kru Town, Logan Town, and PHP, areas that other government officials cared less about, to visit football players. He traveled to New Kru Town to meet my sister, Gbeh Wisseh, and assured her that I would be alright under his tutelage. He paid school fees and employed football players from Barrolle, IE, St. Joseph Warriors, and Bameh at the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) and National Port Authority (NPA) while his counterparts selfishly concentrated only on players who played for their respective teams.

As human beings, life is given to us once with the awareness that one day it will be ended. But how it will be ended is not always as significant as when it will be ended because we want to live a long life. We are worried by fears of living a brief life. But does longevity have any purpose if its service is not in the cause of humanity? For a long life wrapped around and swallowed up in selfishness and self-righteousness, the answer is yes. But for a life characterized by altruism, as was Mr. Burnette’s, the answer is no. Serving as managing director of LEC, he understood the authority of the position and, therefore, wasted no opportunity in using it to employ ordinary people. Even when he was unemployed, he despaired at the unemployment and suffering of other people and his lack of authority to ameliorate their conditions. When it was perilous professionally for anyone in government to associate with political activists in the late 1970s, Mr. Burnette carried on a secret friendship with some of them. If there was anyone to be called the man of the people, Samuel Burnette was that person.

The last time I saw Mr. Burnette was at his residence when I went home to bury my mother in 2004. Then, he still maintained his disarming smile, but with the pressure of age and a stroke he had suffered previously, he lost much of his physical appearance. But it did not affect his spirit of optimism and recollection of the past as we talked about football and former teammates. He asked when I was coming home to stay and I told him that I did not know yet. He informed me about his interest in serving as LEC managing director again. Why at this time? I asked him. “Well,” he began, “in 1979, I promised you that if you completed your studies and returned home, I would make you deputy managing director of LEC for administration, do you remember?” Yes, I remember, I said, and we laughed about it. But I told him that the fact that he remembered a promise made more than two decades ago was sufficient for me.

This week, during his funeral services, we will tell his children and sisters sorry for your loss. But that will be wrong because it is as much as our loss as the family’s. Liberians, who constitute that small community of footballers and fans, will forever be grateful to have had Samuel Nathaniel Burnette walk amongst them in life. It is hard to fathom that we will no longer see him at football games. Good-bye Mr. LEC, good-bye Mr. IE, good-bye SB, as you go gently into that world as Patrick Teah, Tommy Manneh, William Nah, the great Wannie Botoe, Jackson Weah, Tehtoe, Sekou Gomez, Victor Sieh, Paul Dadzie, Bolling Doekieh, Edwin Sambulleh, Mark Arthur, Abraham Williams, Henry Stewart (a.k.a.Children Hill), Phillipee, Festus George, Black Jesus, Varney Dempster, and many others who have gone before you.
Author: Benedict Wisseh lives in New York City with his family. He can be reached at
© 2006 by The Perspective

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