Solomon Elusoji reports on how St. Gregory College Old Boys Association brought back the landmark institution’s lustre after decades of government mismanagement
On a wet, soggy morning this June, this reporter defied big fat drops from the heavens to visit St. Gregory’s College, which is firmly ensconced on the edges of Ikoyi, just one kilometre away from Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS), Lagos. The school’s smooth entry-driveway is lined with short palm trees. To the right is a football field and, at the end of the driveway, also to the right, is a magnificent chapel building, fondly referred to as the ‘mini basilica’. The campus, apart from its many trees and flowers, is decorated with quiet and a kind of serenity found at the bank of a sleeping stream.
Past blocks of classrooms, the Administrative block and Jubilee Hall, sits a spherical cricket pitch. The construction of two buildings expected to house 12 new laboratories is at an advanced stage. And students, clad in white overalls, can be spotted at classroom corridors, or in groups, walking across the grounds.
The elegance of St. Gregory is breathtaking. When MTV, an American cable and satellite channel, was looking for a school in Lagos to shoot some parts of its famous Shuga series, a Location Manager was sent to St. Gregory and, on stepping foot on the grounds, he announced that he had found what he was looking for.
Originally founded as a Grammar School in 1884 by Catholic Missionaries, before it was transformed to a college in 1928, St. Gregory is one of the first few educational institutions in the country. Its colleagues are the CMS Grammar School, the oldest secondary school in the country and Baptist Academy, Obanikoro. But more than its vintage advantage, the school also takes pride in its ability to provide quality education at the most sophisticated levels. In the sixties, the college was the highest fee-paying secondary school in the country, at about 135 pounds per year. It is no coincidence that it went on to produce some of the most influential and powerful Nigerians, including a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and first chancellor of the University of Benin, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola and Chief Julius Agbaje, the first Nigerian to sit on the board of a bank.
But in the late 1970s, St. Gregory’s fortunes was hit by a government policy that took the college’s administration away from its catholic founders, and put it in the hands of the government.
The horror years
For many, the source of the problems bedevilling Nigeria’s primary and secondary schools can be traced to the Take-Over Decree sanctioned by a military government in 1977. That decree validated the takeover of mission and voluntary agency schools by state military governors. St. Gregory was one of the affected schools. By the time the college was returned to its original Catholic administrators in the early 2000s, it was a shadow of itself.
“We called it the horror years, it was a period where most of what St. Gregory stood for was desecrated,” the President of the College’s Old Boys Association, Dr. John Abebe, said, during an interview at the Association’s secretariat, which is situated on the college grounds. A lively, gregarious man, Abebe received an MBBS degree from the University of Lagos after his time at St. Gregory and also attended the University of London between 1978 and 1979. An accomplished businessman with interests in oil and gas, his face lights up when he talks about St. Gregory, the school he credits for training him to be a “complete gentleman”.
According to Abebe, when the Lagos State Government took over, they could not even pay to buy chalk. The school was getting ₦2,500 subventions per month. And then there were over-populated, dirty classes. A class of 30 could have 90 to 100 students. In 1988, he brought his son to the College, on a Monday, after the boy had passed the usual entrance examinations and interview. But, on Thursday, he had to come to remove him, because there was total breakdown of law and order. “The teachers couldn’t even teach, because they were all traders,” Abebe said, adding “yet they were getting automatic promotions, per government policy.”
After he left St. Gregory, Abebe, like many St. Gregory’s Old Boys, became a very active member of the Old Boys Association. During the government takeover, the Association was instrumental in constantly challenging the government, ensuring that its dark influences did not leave permanent structural damages on the school’s uniqueness. “They could take over the school but they could not put up any extra infrastructure building,” Abebe said. “We were the only school that was not touched; we went to court to block them and we threatened that if we saw any worker with a shovel, we would all come out of our homes with our beds to come and occupy this place.”
Today, a little bit over 15 years after the government handed back the college’s administration back to its Catholic owners, St. Gregory has gradually clawed its way out of the horror years and is, once again, the shining light it used to be. That transformation would not have been possible without the efforts of its Old Boys Association.
From struggle to renaissance
Sometime in December 2012, Abebe was elected, unopposed, as the President of the Old Boys Association. He had been nominated by Mr. Paddy Okoh and seconded by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour. After the election, Abebe pledged his commitment to the academic, infrastructural, and social progress of the college.
In 2014, the Association was instrumental in building the school chapel, one of the largest chapels in any private institution anywhere in the world with a sitting capacity for 1,200 people. Together with school administrators, the association also began to fund the expansion of the college’s in-boarding facilities and the development of a new set of 15 new laboratories – including science, music and language labs. There have also been donations of all sorts through the Association to the school. A good example is the donation of a 40ft container stocked with musical equipments, by an Old Boy in the Diaspora.
“Once you go through this college, this college goes through you,” Abebe said, when asked what made the Old Boys Association so fervent, “you’ll never leave it behind. We were brought up as brothers, like a family. And this is one college where if one brother attends it, if they have junior ones, they are very likely to also come here. We have a family where 32 of them have gone though St. Gregory. It’s a family thing. The moment you hear ‘Up Gregs’ anywhere in the world, there is an explosion of ecstasy.”
Abebe’s pointer to St. Gregory’s camaraderie spirit is important. There is the popular story of a young Gregorian in Junior School who saw the college’s sticker on a car and asked the driver for the owner. The driver was dismissive, but the Junior Gregorian decided to wait for the owner. When the owner, who was an elderly man, came, the young chap cried ‘Up Gregs!’ The owner swept him off the floor in a tight embrace.
It is almost impossible not to reckon with this sort of spirit, and Abebe notes that this has been instrumental in reviving the fortunes of St. Gregory. When there are construction projects in the college, it is normal for ex-Gregorians who are now architects and engineers to contribute their quota, pro bono. More importantly, these services are voluntary. “We do not task our members,” Abebe said. “We don’t have huge fundraising programmes. For us, one on one relationships are more meaningful and deliver better results.”
The Association also has a mentorship programme that helps to develop the college boys. For example, if a child is interested in law, someone with a law firm, during long vacation, brings in the student to observe the intricate, practical details of the work. “And we have all sorts of professions within the association,” Abebe said.
Understanding the structure
What makes St. Gregory’s Old Boys Association tick, apart from the ‘brotherly’ explanation, might as well be its structure, which embraces a compartmentalised, devolving mechanism.
The association is set up to have three boards. There is a Board of Patrons, which consists of the very Old Boys and traditional leaders. A 93-year-old man and former Chairman of Citibank, Chief Charles Sankey, is the chairman of the Board. He has been associated with the association for more than 70 years.
Other members of the Board include the Alaafin of Oyo, Lamidi Adeyemi III, the Onilado of Ilado, Mobadenle Oyekan, and the Igwe of Achalla, Alex Nwokedi.
The second board is the Board of Trustees, which consists of Old Boys in their 70s and 80s. The former Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Cardinal Olubunmi Okojie is the Board’s Chairman. Members include Chief Bode Emmanuel, Sir Steve Omojafor, Prince Olu Awogboro, Archbishop George Amu and Dr. Oluyomi MacGregor.
Then, there is the Executive Board, presided over by Dr. John Abebe. “We are the younger people who are making things happen,” Abebe said, “and, by and large, things have worked so well.”
A lot of the Association’s members are in the Diaspora, so the Association has encouraged, over the years, the setting up of various branches across Nigeria, with very active chapters in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
“Also, apart from having the main association, we have encouraged the setting up of year-sets,” Abebe said. “So if you were my classmate, and there are 30 of us, we will be meeting privately on a day fixed by us, all for the good of the school. That helps them to see the development on ground and inspires them to be part of it.”
There are a lot of lessons other educational institutions can learn from the story of St. Gregory and how it has managed to bounce back from near-oblivion. But, perhaps, the most important one is that it pays to focus on quality.