By Muyiwa Adetiba
Punch Newspapers will roll out the drums tonight to mark 30 years of the passing away of its founding Chairman, Chief James Olubunmi Aboderin— known to many as Olu Aboderin and to some of us as Chairman. This is how it should be for without his vision and courage, there would not have been Punch; a paper that has influenced lives and the nation in immeasurable ways. Punch has become a worthwhile legacy.
In choosing whom to invite to the planned event, the current management of the paper would have thought of those it believed, played some roles in the life of Punch—past and present— including those who probably never even knew of the man. That would be their prerogative. After all, we choose to write or frame history from our prisms.
But if I have to draw up a list for this evening’s ball, my first thought would be to the founding directors of Punch who gave fillip and bite to what might have been the crazy and suicidal thoughts of Olu Aboderin and Sam Amuka to set up a private newspaper. Unfortunately, most of them have joined our Chairman in the world beyond. Then of course those on whose shoulders the Chairman leaned on for advice and implementation during those critical early days.
These were the managers who worked tirelessly for Punch, Skyway Press, Skylark Dancers and Rental Colour. Again, many have departed but the memory lingers. Then of course the editorial team that gave shape and thrust to a mere idea.
But that, like I said earlier, is the prerogative of someone else. Someday, a true account of the earlier days of Punch would be written. (That would have to be another person’s assignment).
Today in remembering Olu Aboderin, I remember first of all, the three executive directors; Olu Aboderin, Sam Amuka and Ayo Akinwale who were in charge of Finance, Editorial and Marketing respectively. This was the tripod on which Punch stood. Of the three, Ayo Akinwale was the most accessible to me— maybe because he was the youngest of the three, or because he seemingly had more time, or because he paid more of my canteen bills. He was a good man and many of us found it easy to run to him for one thing or the other and he almost always accommodated us.
I also remember the wives who used to drop by quite a bit. They were polite and always seemed to have a smile for everyone. And then the older children who came around whenever they could and soon became veritable members of the Punch family. I was friendly with the first two and hung out with them a couple of times. There were no airs around them; no special feeling of importance. They were true chips off the old block. I remember the canteen. How could I forget? It was our watering hole and many people spent more time there than in their respective offices. It was not unusual for lunch to stretch to two good hours or more of ribald jokes and explicit comments. The manager, Mrs. Thompson gave as much as she received and I remember feeling priviledged just to sit there and soak in adult jokes.
Then I remember our workstation, the newsroom. We were hardly more than eight at any point in time( Sam Amuka was such a perfectionist and a hard task master in those days, that writers came and went in quick successions). But it was a motley and often irreverent crowd—from A.B Attah who used to call me ‘son’, to Bunmi Sofola who claimed she was the one who showed me the ropes, to Jibade Thomas who actually did.
The newsroom was almost always thick with smoke from cigarettes and cigars (and a few in-between). Bottles of beer and stout were not far from the desks either.
The Chairman who came from the ultra conservative banking world, had to adapt to this avant-garde way of working. But not without some protests! I remember him asking why journalists could not come to work early and do normal hours or why they felt the need to go back to the canteen at 5pm when they should be rounding up to go home.
I remember there was always a hush whenever the Chairman’s black Mercedes pulled up. I remember he usually responded to your greetings if you met him along the corridor or at the foot of the stairs. I remember the little, kind smile he gave you as he passed you by. And as I rose in the hierarchy, I encountered his disarming charm which was his humour— I don’t think anybody who truly knew Olu Aboderin would not remember his humour.
It was a weapon he used, not only to endear himself to people, but also to diffuse many tense moments. And in later years, as I worked closely with him as editor, I was struck by his capacity for work— how he would come in from a long-distance trip and go straight to the office. And of course I remember the parties. It was almost a signature tune of the three directors.
Olu Aboderin’s zest for life was remarkable. I remember my one-on-one moments with him and the pieces of advice he gave me on relationships, work and life. Most of all, I will always remember his generosity of spirit, his humaneness and his humility. When Chief Olu Aboderin was in his elements, he was fun to be with.
Chief Aboderin died a few months short of fifty. I often wonder about the timing considering his enormous energy and what he had achieved at such a relatively young age. But there is no good or right time with death. What we are all left with are memories.