Good Night Baba Ellenski !!!
…a tribute in memory of late Deacon Elijah Ayodele Ositelu (1943-2013)
By Gboyega Okegbenro
“Okay young man. Go right away to the NTA office inside the National Stadium and give this note to Mr. Fabio Lanipekun. He will direct you to the sports hall. Watch as many bouts as possible till about 6pm and bring your report.
“I will be waiting here to see what you can do,” said Ayo Ositelu, flashing his trade-mark smiles as I made my way out of his small-sized office on the wooden decks of Punch Newspapers’ Editorial department that sunny afternoon of October 1983.
That was barely two minutes after I had been introduced to him as an avid sports follower by my late friend and brother, Jide Kutelu, with whom I had developed a strong bond of friendship over the preceding 11 months as youth corpers and teachers at Majidun Community Grammar School, Ikorodu, Lagos State.
Of course, I went and did as he directed and pronto, he published my report on the Punch Sports pages the next day. Being a complete journalism rookie however, I did not look out for the report next day or anytime afterwards. I merely disappeared and kept up my job hunts on other fronts until about two weeks later, when I wandered my way again to Jide’s desk at the Features department on another casual visit.
I was making my way down the stairs to the reception area when I saw him disembarking from his car, with heaps of foreign magazines and documents and I said hello. He recognized me immediately, saying he had been looking for me since the day the report was published and had told everyone to seek me out at the stadium.
He led me straight to the expansive Punch newsroom and introduced me to his then deputy, Segun ‘’Eddie” Adams, who was to be my direct boss for the next two years and thus began my long-running journalism career.
Ayo’s modus operandi in every sphere of life was that simple, convivial and exemplary. From thence, we developed a strong bond of friendship and brotherhood which was as unbelievable as belying the significant age difference between us. Not just with me; but with every of his staff on the Punch sports desk; co-editors and colleagues in the newsroom, typists, messengers and the radio room staff.
Arena was friend of all, high and low in the Punch Newspapers. Across the various departments, he was held in high esteem. His trade-mark, Aramis perfume, announced his presence at every point and he would pump hands, exchange jokes and chat wittily all the way to his office.
Elijah Ayodele Ositelu (Elijah Joe to his childhood friends), was a born Public Relations man. His major tools were the ever-ready smiles and respect for all, irrespective of age or gender. As a boss, leader, friend and mentor, Arena treated and acted towards all with immeasurable warmth, honour and sincerity. He was one of the industry’s best dressers of that era; full of life; vibrant till the end and extremely witty.
A teetotaler, Arena was humble to a fault. And nothing in my memory demonstrated this as his insistence, despite my protestations, to be MC at my wedding reception in December 1990.
As a writer, Arena was in a distinct class. He elevated sports writing and reporting beyond the bonds of mere information sharing and delivery. He was an educator, coach and demonstrator of all that was key in the various sports. From basketball to tennis, baseball to hockey; boxing to track and field; Ayo was unmistakably the Lord of the Arena.
He did not just write elegantly on all sports, but possessed tremendous knowledge and insight on all sports no matter how unpopular. Through his writings, anchored on his flowery lexicon, he won fans over for a lot of hitherto unpopular sports in these parts. He had this rare ability of “transporting” his readers to the action spot; describing key points and statistics that separate the winners from the losers.
My mentor had a weakness for “photos that speak” as he described action pictures during productions. Arena was interesting to work with. He practically freezes when John Ebhota lands with his trade-mark, expressive action pictures.
Arena would simply jump off his seat, race to a corner of his room and grab an off-cut. ‘’Oya, oya, aburo ….fancy this caption…Amazing Shot”, he would say excitedly as he scribbled his usually captivating RLB captions on our action-photo-stories, which was one of our desk’s niche under Arena’s watch.
A master of big-stage international coverage outings, Arena never missed any world-class event no matter how far on the globe. Often times, he funded his own travels and would for weeks, upon return, write and write from diverse angles on not just the championship but its superstars.
Once upon his return from covering the World Athletics Championships in Helsinki, Finland; he delayed unusually in handing out souvenirs to one of our female typists in the newsroom. Being a master at giving people different monikers himself, the lady loudly hailed him as he bounced into the newsroom with a face-cap bearing Helsinki. The lady hailed……. ‘’Baba Ellenski”; an apparent corrupt pronunciation of the city Helsinki.
From that day, the Arena had the moniker, Baba Ellenski, added to his list