How I Became First Black Employee of New York’s F&L

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 Gbadebo Adeyeye

Prince Zaccheaus Gbadebo Adeyeye has a disposition that easily gives him away as your regular guy: amiable, humble, reserved, unassuming and gentle. But indeed, he is a prince whose father reigned for over 40 years in Ise-Ekiti in the old Western Region and present day Ekiti State. Did he live a luxury life of a prince? No, he did not. Losing his mother while he was barely six years old, and before he clocked 20, his father, who had tremendous influence on him died.  Thus, he became an orphan and faced with a bleak future.  Adeyeye didn’t allow life circumstances and travails of fending for himself to undermine his goals and aspirations.  After his struggle through Amoye Grammar School, Ikere-Ekiti, in 1981, he sought greener pasture in the land of his dream, United States of America. He attended Baruch College of the City University of New York where he studied advertising and later acquired a Master degree from the Queen’s Campus arm of the same University.   After graduation, he joined F&L Financial Management Corporation in New York as the first black employee and had the privilege of working closely with some talented designers.  In 1997, he founded Crown Height College, a co-educational secondary school based in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, to provide qualitative education for young Nigerians. As he turned 60 on October 5th, Adeyeye tells Funke Olaode, in his own words, his journey through life and why one shouldn’t allow life challenges to truncate one’s dreams

  • Why I Stayed Away from School for Three Years
  • My Father Had 30 Children But I’m My Mother’s Only Surviving Child

Stepping into Royalty

M

y name is Zacchaeus Gbadebo Adeyeye.  I was born on the 5th of October 1957 into the family of Oba Adeyeye, the late Arinjale Asodedero of Ise-Ekiti, who reigned from 1932 to 1976 and his wife Olori Abosede. I am one of more than 30 children in the family of Oba Adeyeye and the only surviving child of my mother. My father was a traditional ruler but was not born with a bow tie like Prince Charles. In fact, I was born into the business of aso-oke. My maternal grandmother was fully engaged in weaving and selling aso-oke, the same trade she passed on to my mother. I remember growing up when my grandmother would make different shades of ‘dansiki’ with aso-oke for me to wear during festivals and at the same time serving as a means of advertising her products. We didn’t have electricity in Ise-Ekiti when I was born until 1976 during Governor David Jemibewon’s administration in the old Western State. Nevertheless, growing up in Ise was very beautiful; especially with other children from different backgrounds; Christians and Muslims playing together without shoes like greyhounds – lean, smart and with tight muscles in unbearable hot weather.

Parental Influence and Granny’s Love

I must say that one of the factors that contributed to my hard work and self-discipline is the fact that my father was more committed to the cause of Ise-Ekiti community than anything else as the oba. However, I am also proud to say that he is my hero because of what he stood for. Back in the days in Yoruba land, for example, people admired an oba who could simply scratch a desert and provide water. My father demonstrated qualities that Yoruba people identify with: guts, patriotism, idealism, discipline, and passion for freedom. All these I observed as I grew up; especially his profound love for Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his encounter with late General Adeyinka Adebayo at the peak of Ise and Emure crisis in 1970. Living with my grandmother as a young boy also had a positive impact on my life.  I was reserved and very smart. And from her, I learned the value of hard work, how to have dreams and make the dreams come true with prayers.

In 1969, I remember that my grandmother went to the market one day, and coming back home, she brought one small goat that she purchased for about five or seven shillings. That day, she gave the goat a pet name as ‘b’orikansan a ran’gba’; meaning the success of one man can affect many others. She started nurturing the goat; and few years after, the goat had become so big and very healthy. One day, my grandmother took the goat back to the market and sold it for one pound and ten shillings. Following that, she took me to one uncle Aremu, an Ijebu man, who was operating a famous variety store at Ojude, in Ise-Ekiti during the time. And from the one pound, ten shillings, without holding a dime back for herself, she bought a 6’ x 2.5’ bed, a suitcase and a bucket for me in preparation for boarding at Amoye Grammar School, Ikere-Ekiti.  When I asked her on our way out of the store, why she spent the whole cash on those items without keeping part of it for herself, my grandmother replied with emotions, ‘Omo eni l’aso eni’, which means life is hopeless for anyone who possesses tons of clothes, shoes, and pieces of jewelry without training a child, a statement that I never easily forget in my life. It was a very emotional moment.

My Dream Almost Died When My Mother Passed Away

In January 1962, my uncle, Michael Ogunjobi, took me to Local Authority Primary School in Ise-Ekiti, for enrollment into primary school but I was turned back because my right hand did not reach my left ear which was the popular admission requirement into an elementary school in those days. In 1963, I was accepted to the same school at the time when some famous teachers like Oba Oluwole Amele, a former actor in the old Village Headmaster NTA drama series, who later became the Alara of Aramoko-Ekiti, were there. But shortly after I started the elementary school, my mother died on December 1, 1963; thereby, I was subjected to psychological and emotional torture for few years. This gave me a serious academic setback because after my mother’s death in 1963, I was kept at home for three years by my over-protective grandmother. Later in January 1966, I went to St. Teresa’s Catholic Primary School, in Ise-Ekiti, after the headmaster, Pa Faboya from Ire-Ekiti had assured my grandmother of my ultimate protection. And for a whole year, Pa Faboya would come to the house, pick me in the morning and take me back to my grandmother after school hours. During my fourth year at St Theresa’s Primary School, all the pupils in my class were moved to St Stephen’s Anglican Primary School, Erinwa in Ise-Ekiti to complete the elementary education, following the directive of the education ministry. St Stephen was a very good experience for me, both academically and socially. To date, I can still remember some mischievous pupils in my class like Dada Araba, Samuel Ojo, Abiodun Atua and others. They were very humorous back in the days. After elementary school, I proceeded to Amoye Grammar School in Ikere-Ekiti where Chief J.O. Osuntokun was the principal after leaving government as a minister in the old Western Region. Later, Mr. A.S. Asebiomo, the man who taught us how to acquire the keys to salvation through education came in as our principal. However, passing through Amoye Grammar School without my mother was not a smooth ride. I was virtually my own guardian and counsellor. But I will forever be grateful to Prince (Dr.). B.A. Sijuwade from Ile Ife, the man who paid my full school fees in the first two years of high school.

In Search of the American Dream

After secondary school, I aspired to be a journalist. I love reading magazines right from elementary school. I remember when I was at St Stephen’s; my grandmother would give me money to subscribe to a monthly publication called ‘Challenge Magazine’ back in the days from Lagos. At Amoye Grammar School, I was always fascinated by the articles of brilliant writers like Dr. Olu Onagoruwa, thereby, I bought newspapers every day; no matter how broke I was. That was the reason I was deeply interested in journalism in my early days. At the City University of New York, I started as a journalism major but later switched in my second year, to advertising in the department of business administration.

After high school, I worked briefly in Lagos with the Nigerian Textile Mills in Ikeja and CFAO. At that point, I already made up my mind to travel to the United States for higher education; knowing fully that no one could provide the kind of assistance needed for me to succeed except God.  And to be honest, if anyone ever gave me evidence that God had a plan for my life, it was the night He put me in the Nigerian Airways flight in 1981 to the land where every dream, every promise, and every opportunity is ever golden.                                                                                                                                    Life was initially tough when I got to New York.  Again, I left Nigeria with only $200 traveller’s cheque which my uncle, Dayo Ajiboye, helped me to purchase. He gave me N20 with another N20 from his colleague in the office, one Mr. Adewumi, a native of Ado-Ekiti so that I could have the cash to spend at the airport if needed. On getting to New York, God was so merciful to me; even at the time when thousands of innocent young men and women who travelled from Nigeria on different government’s scholarship were stranded in many cities across the United States because of failed promises from our leaders. I didn’t allow the situation to undermine my aspirations.

Steveland Hardaway Judkins, popularly known as Stevie Wonder, said many years ago, ‘Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.’ This statement inspired me to work very hard beyond high school without any excuse. I attended Baruch College of the City University of New York Department of Business Administration where I studied Advertising. I also have a master’s degree from Queens’s campus of the City University of New York. After graduation, I joined F&L Financial Management Corporation on Madison Avenue as the first black employee since 1969. F & L is an administrative headquarters for European shoe manufacturers where I had the privilege of working closely with some talented designers like Donald J Pliner, D’Rossana and Peter Fox for 13 years.

Crown Height College is My Way of Giving Back

I have reached a point in my life where, apart from my family, what I care about is doing whatever I could to make sure that people younger than me are not denied the opportunity to discover their potential; particularly through education, no matter what it takes from me. That is why I took a decision in 1997 after our education sector was poisoned by the military to dabble into education. In 1997, God gave me the grace to join the Nigerians of goodwill to create hope for the youth in our country by establishing Crown Heights College, Ibadan; a move that I made to help people regain their confidence in Nigerian education, especially after over 20 years of the Green Beret leadership that poisoned our education sector.

Life at 60, I Am a Work of Providence

Truly speaking, God has been so kind to me. First, let me say that birthday is a good time to look back at the past, think about our journey of life, remember where we have been and where we are heading to. In my own case, Maya Angelou said, ‘A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.’ Therefore, my own song today is, ‘thank you Lord’ for the wonderful 60 years of His grace. The grace of God has been keeping me on for the past 60 years.  According to Noah Webster, grace is defined as the unmerited gift. But for the purpose of this interview, I will define grace as God’s compassionate treatment. This is what I have been leaning on for 60 years, and I really appreciate God for that. From my experience of life, I have learned that no one lightens our lives better than Jesus. Uncles and brothers will have their own issues, employees will always have excuses for not to showing up at work, while friends can disappear anytime. But Jesus is forever there for us 24/7, no matter the situation. That is why I will forever keep my eyes focusing on Him without allowing things of this earth to steal my joy of living for Christ. I also appreciate everyone who has contributed positively to my life during the past 60 years: teachers who epitomised the true meaning of the profession; schoolmates, professional colleagues, friends and family members who have been very passionate, patient and kind to me.

Lessons Life have Taught Me

Let me be honest. It took me a while to realise that not everyone that we see in a suit and tie is normal; especially in a society where every citizen is a ‘deacon’; otherwise, I would not have been trapped by some Nigerians for too long. But thank God for teaching me every day how to stop trusting people at first sight, no matter how wonderful their CV looks.

Meeting my Wife, Solape

I met my wife, Solape, a native of Ilesa in Osun State, during one of my visits to Lagos back in the 1980s. To be honest, apart from beauty, what attracted me to her was her intelligence. Personally, I don’t like asking questions two or three times from someone before getting the correct answer. And I really appreciate God for keeping our marriage over the years. Sometimes, I think my life actually began on the day I married my wife 29 years ago. Today, I am blessed with a wonderful family: my wife, four wonderful children (two boys and two girls) and grandchildren who I will forever cherish because they have really filled my life with joy and I love them deeply.

No Regrets

No man fulfils life’s aspirations as long as he is still breathing. And this also applies to me. At 60, I still have a lot of goals ahead of me by the special grace of God. When I was in the elementary school, it was always my dream to attend the famous Christ School, Ado-Ekiti. Unfortunately, there was no one to mentor me through that route. That was a kind of a disappointment for me; but thank God today, even after Amoye Grammar School, Ikere-Ekiti, I can still stand tall.

I Want to See a Better Nigeria in my Life Time

During a chat with Larry King on August 15, 1988, and few months before he left office, former American President, Ronald Wilson Reagan, said, ‘When people tell me that I became president on January 20th, 1981, I feel I have to correct them. You don’t become president of the United States. You are given temporary custody of an institution called the presidency, which belongs to our people.’ I will be glad to see that time in Nigeria when our political leaders will understand that public office is just temporary, and not a lifetime inheritance.