•Adesina, Nwosu, Ukeh celebrate life and times of ‘Mr. English’
By Tope Adeboboye
Shortly after midday on Friday, April 28, 2017, the interior of Ward A2 at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba, Lagos, wore a sombre mien.
Tears welled in many eyes, just as wails and sorrowful sighs poured forth from the mouths of some. Family members, neighbours, friends and adopted children of popular columnist, journalism teacher, English language expert and passionate lover of books, Pa Bayo Oguntunase, that had gathered in and around the ward awaiting news of his condition could not control their emotions. The doctors had just announced the passing of the septuagenarian.
It was the closure to a five-day nightmare that had confronted the family and close associates of Pa Oguntunase since Sunday, April 23, 2017. That day, shortly after returning home from the bus stop, where he had gone to buy newspapers, the elderly man had suffered a fall in his Ikorodu home. He was alone in the house at the time. When the man was discovered prostrate and rushed, unconscious, to the General Hospital, Ikorodu, later that afternoon, the medical personnel there promptly referred the case to LUTH, where he was placed on immediate admission. And from that day till he breathed his last, Baba, as he was fondly called, remained in his comatose condition, kept alive by an oxygen tank.
He came out of coma moments before his death and communicated softly with some of his children at the hospital. Immediately after, he passed on, slipping into an eternal sleep.
Since his death, associates and friends of the deceased have been celebrating the life and times of the English language expert who helped many a newsman hone his skills through the Mind Your Language column, which Pa Oguntunase successfully ran in the National Concord and Daily Sun for three decades and three years.
Garlands for ‘Mr. English’
Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, was a close associate of Pa Oguntunase. The former managing director of The Sun Publishing Limited regretted that Nigerians would miss the boisterous bibliophile, who for decades tutored millions on the appropriate application of English words.
He told the reporter: “I met Pa Bayo Oguntunase in Concord Press in 1991. Before then, his reputation had preceded him as the man behind the English language clinic column, Mind Your Language.
“I had always believed that whoever was behind the column was a professor of English. You could then imagine my consternation when I met the man and, lo and behold, he had studied German!
“We formed a relationship that was to endure for 26 years, before the Grim Reaper harvested him. I visited his home, when he used to live in Ketu area of Lagos, and saw his forest of books. No wonder he could dissect English language so well. Papa Oguntunase was a bibliophile. He contributed a lot to my own forest of books, as he always sent me book gifts. And some years back, when he heard that I was travelling to the United States of America, the only thing he asked for was a certain book on English language.
“The world is a stage, and we men and women mere actors, says William Shakespeare. We have our entrances and exits. Papa Oguntunase has taken his exit. He had phoned me a day before he had the domestic accident. Now, I will never hear the voice again. O di arin na ko, o tun di oju ala. We can only meet in dreams, till I also cross the river, a sail that all mortals must take, willy-nilly. Adieu, Mr English.”
For Mr. Steve Nwosu, Deputy Managing Director/Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sun Publishing Limited, Pa Oguntunase lived a fulfilled life and should be celebrated.
“I had been reading him long before I met him,” he said.
“While in school, and while I was working with some other organisations, I had been reading his column, Mind Your Language. Then we met here at The Sun. He was a very nice person, very amiable and generous. Baba would always give you books. I have at least 15 books from him in my library. And he was always full of life. You would never believe he was that old. He would come by himself from Ikorodu to Apapa. I remember two years ago when his son came from Germany. He brought the man here and we all had a good time.
“Baba was a nice man, a man that harboured no evil in his mind. We will all miss him.”
Mr. Onuoha Ukeh, Editor, Daily Sun, said he was momentarily stunned upon hearing the news of Pa Oguntunase’s demise.
“Shock is a mild word to describe how I felt when I got a phone call that Pa Oguntunase was dead,” intoned the editor, “It was the last news I expected at the time it came. Yes, he was old, but there was nothing that showed he could die last week. In fact, I am so pained because we had a good encounter recently, which made him to call me almost every day last week. He promised to come see me in the office for us to talk about his elucidating column, Mind Your Language, and other things.
“It is, therefore, with a deep sense of loss and regret that I pay tribute to this wordsmith, intellectual and master of the English language. His column was educating and audacious. It is not just anybody that takes it upon himself to not only examine others’ usage of English but also be a judge. You must be a master and authority of the English language to do so. Pa Oguntunase was. He wrote impeccable English and could pass for a ‘surgeon’ of the language.
“He was not only an inspiration to some of us, but also a challenge. At 78, he was strong, energetic and did things that put the young ones to test. He loved things that nourished the intellect and he devoted his all towards intellectualism. With his death, Nigeria has lost a rare gem, who was unassuming and iconic.”
Born at Ere Quarters, Odo-Ayedun Ekiti, in present-day Ekiti State, on May 25, 1938, Pa Oguntunase had his elementary education in his native community before moving to Egbe Oba High School, Ikole-Ekiti, in 1957. He later travelled to Hamburg, Germany, where he earned degrees in German language and textile technology.
When he returned to Nigeria, he worked with the Voice of Nigeria, Ikoyi. He also taught at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism and the College of Journalism, before starting the Mind Your Language column that brought him plaudits and popularity in copious quantities.
Baba Oguntunase was popular all over Nigeria and beyond for his column. But he earned far greater acclaim for his exceptional appetite for the collection and consumption of books.
With a visit to his home, one would immediately realise that he didn’t just love collecting books, he was an irredeemable bibliomaniac. For decades, those close to him would testify that Baba’s home was an expansive library. Right from the door, you would notice the vast collection of books on diverse subjects arranged everywhere in the bungalow. The house was equipped with a study, but since the place was too cramped to successfully accommodate the many books he had, every spare space in the building was turned to a book shelve. From the corridor to the living room, bedrooms and study, there were piles of books neatly arranged on chairs, tables, stools and sofas.
Baba’s love for books was not a recent development. At an encounter shortly before his demise, he informed the reporter that he had been building a library since he was 12 years old.
“I remember vividly that in 1950, when I was in Standard One, I got some textbooks from the school authorities, including a copy of Oxford Reader 1. From then, my passion for reading started,” he said.
“It’s not something that can be explained,” he added, “But as soon as I got the book, I was so excited, so elated, that I jumped out of my chair. That was how it started. Now, my friends, my children, everyone knows that the best thing that you can give me (that) I will appreciate is books. Even if you give me money, I will buy books with it.”
He explained that his love for books got a tremendous boost in 1957 when he got into secondary school at Egbe Oba High School, where reading became a mandatory part of the students’ lives.
“Since then, I’ve been buying and keeping books,” he said.
During the third term breaks, usually called long vacation in those days, Baba would comb all the bookshops in Lagos and Ibadan for books. By the time he returned to school, his luggage would be filled with books on diverse subjects. And by the time he was rounding off secondary school in 1962, he already had a modest library.
Mind Your Language
It was while living in Hamburg that he started gathering material for Mind Your Language, which he started in 1984.
“At that time, I would visit the library in the Nigerian Consulate in Hamburg on Wednesdays, and read Nigerian newspapers and magazines,” he once told the reporter. “And in the newspapers, I started checking and marking the errors. Don’t forget that in Nigeria it was an Oxford-trained English expert that trained me. So, I was agonising anytime I saw an error in a Nigerian newspaper. When I came back to Nigeria, I started writing the Mind Your Language column for National Concord in 1984. When Concord was no more, I brought it to Daily Sun, and I have maintained the column till date.”
When he left Hamburg for Augsburg in Bavaria, the bibliophile in him remained extremely active.
“You know, by then, I was already used to it. I was studying German and reading German books. But the urge to read English books was too strong. So, on Fridays, I would fly from Germany to London. At that time, my younger brother was in London. Charing Cross Road in London had many bookshops but my favourite was Foyles, which is one of the largest bookshops in the world. It’s been there for over 100 years. It’s about ten stories. From the gate, everyone knew me. They would see me and say, ‘hey man, our man from the continent.’ Just mention the title of the book, and they would tell you which floor to go. And when you got to that floor, there were people there that would guide you. So, that was how I was getting most of my books from London every weekend.”
He said he was exceedingly saddened when many of his books got lost at the Lagos port after they had been shipped from Germany. But he refused to be conquered. He continued collecting books and, at the moment, Baba’s forest of books would be worth quite some money.
A wordsmith’s regrets
Until his death last week, Baba Oguntunase had written the Mind Your Language for 33 years. But he was never impressed that many Nigerian journalists have continued to commit elementary howlers.
“I call them non-reading journalists,” he said. “I lectured at the Nigeria Institute of Journalism and the College of Journalism, so I know many journalists. The truth is, once a journalist is able to identify his by-line in a story, off he goes to where he can make some money. Over the years, I’ve been trying to correct people’s errors, but the errors are recurring. It’s very unfortunate. Many of our journalists don’t read even their own newspapers. Once they graduate, they don’t visit the bookshop. But in my view, a journalist is like a lawyer. You must read on a daily basis.”
Until he had the accident that eventually claimed his life, Baba Oguntunase had enjoyed perfect health. A month to his 79th birthday, Baba was as strong and healthy as a 55-year-old. He did everything without assistance, and travelled round Lagos on his own with the vivacity of a vibrant quinquagenarian.
He once told the reporter: “The only time I ever went to the hospital was in 1980 or 1981. I had returned from Germany, and I had malaria. I went to the hospital about 9am. I was given two drips, and by 5pm, I was discharged. By 6.30pm, I was back in the house. That was the I only time I ever went to the hospital.”
Devoted to family
Mr. Ayo Oguntunase, Baba’s first son, described his father as a good and devoted family man. The younger Oguntunase, who is managing director, Readwridt Books Company, a publishing firm in Lagos, said his father was a hardworking man who loathed lethargy: “He was never idle. He kept reading, writing, editing and delivering lectures till the very end.”
Baba’s other children, including Abayomi, a German-based lights engineer and music promoter, Yetunde, a banker, Odun, a nurse, and Seun, a fashion designer, also described their late dad in gushing superlatives.
Daily Sun gathered that burial details would be announced by the family.