No. Nothing can change the fact that Rev. Fr. Nicholas Chukwuemeka Tagbo, OON – the longest serving and first black principal of Christ the King College, (CKC) Onitsha is now at home with our Father who art in Heaven. He was a true father of countless sons whom he had carefully moulded to become leaders in all walks of life across generations and across the globe.
These men are crestfallen at this moment not because they lost a father who was more than everything to each of them. No. The ‘Amaka boys’ as they are fondly called never believed their Father could die. Their story is my story. Their conviction was my conviction until reality stole our belief beyond reach. I guess my hurt and indeed that of countless students who passed through him is that we’ve grown to believe that Father was immortal. Father still vividly lives in each of us. He must have implanted an unusual psychological chip in our heads that made him seem indestructible by death in our minds. We left his school many years ago but he lived in our minds everyday afterwards. He reigned in our thoughts at very important periods of our lives. Like a guardian angel, his words of exhortation illumined our paths, leading us to decisions that formed milestones in our lives. He was more of our Avatar, an eternal guiding light to what we would later become in life. What this clearly points to is that Father, while he lived, constantly prayed for us, his sons.
Tagbo encouraged us to work hard and also provided us with more than enough to play with – football pitches, cricket pitch, hockey field, basketball courts, volleyball court, lawn tennis courts, badminton court, handball court and huge field for athletics on the one hand. Then on the other hand student law courts, debating and literary societies, altar servers, Man ‘O’ War, Historical and Current Affairs Society, name it. The CKC of his time was run by the able hands of his students with minor guidance from the tutorial staff. He made us forget our homes and gave us the veritable fillip to live like a family of over six hundred children. He knew each of us by name, at least by our surnames. Fr. taught us to pray but above all, taught us to dream. In dreaming, he was quick to remind us that dreams were not enough. He fitted us with wings and urged us to dare. To the wide golden fields of life we dared… thankfully most of us soared to remarkable heights. He gave us faith without fear; love without weakness.
The greatest of his power was his reputation. Nobody ever wanted to be in his black book because of stories of his skills in straightening crooked boys. We feared him like a god yet we loved him like a father.
He was indeed our father and we, happily his sons. He gave us what nobody else could have given us – infinite belief in ourselves, our college, our country and our God. He taught us to live above the common level of life. He made us commit to choosing the harder right instead of the easier wrong. He made us never to be content with the half truth where the whole can be won. Loyalty and honour were etched on our sacred breasts just as hard work became the colour of our bloods.
His life was a treatise in modesty. It took me almost a lifetime to finally brace the profundity of Tagbo’s virtue of humility. A man of his ilk was content to make great men out of plain boys while he remained a simple priest. He gave up his life ambitions to make us rule our worlds. Tagbo was satisfied to be just a principal and a priest while some of his classmates in Christ the King College became bishops and one would later become a Cardinal. He gave Nigeria over twenty Senior Advocates of Nigeria and remained an obedient citizen. He raised men who became GCON, CON, CFR, MFR etc. but was content and very proud to be honoured with just an OON. He produced three state governors while he remained a simple priest in a local parish. He had over a hundred billionaire businessmen as his sons yet he remained faithful to his vow of poverty as a priest. He trained boys that became Chief Judges of about four states and senior judges in courts across Nigeria, yet he ended as Citizen Nicholas. His bell of humility tolled twelve when he happily lived as a poor old priest under the current Archbishop of Onitsha Diocese who was once his obedient student in Christ the King College. Our Fr. fathered Senators, members of the National and State Assemblies, over seven Secretaries of State Governments, movie stars, top writers, University Professors, world class researchers, inventors and their likes, yet he lived as a quiet priest who reposed in his silent corner of no allure – praying ceaselessly for his errant children.
Yes; talking about errant children, Tagbo typified the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ talked about, who would leave ninety-nine obedient sheep and go after one errant sheep. Tagbo would go out of his way to ensure that the erring child followed the path of honour. He could sneak into a hostel by 1:00 a.m. to do a head count while the students snored and slumbered. He could travel the miles and tear the wires to ensure that a bad boy returned home a prodigal. He made us live the motto of our school Bonitas, Disciplina, Scientia – Goodness discipline and knowledge!
Tagbo’s ties with his old students were never broken by either length of distance or exigencies of time. Not even their high offices as governors prevented Peter Odili and Peter Obi from visiting him regularly as governors of Rivers and Anambra States respectively.
Just four days before his final departure, he was again visited by three of his CKC sons, the current Governor of Anambra State, Chief Willie Obiano, the Secretary to the State Government, Prof. Solo Chukwulobe and the Commissioner for Information, Ogbuefi Tony Nnacheta. These visits must have made him happy. The last by the current Anambra State Governor must invariably have enlivened and enlightened his final days.
My team’s visit on June 17 this year was a unique and therapeutic experience not for him but for me. At the Old priests’ residence at Sacred Heart Parish Odoakpu, Onitsha Fr. Tagbo cheerfully received us and cheerily told us his side of the story on a book project I am working on called ‘Sons of a Priest.’ I realized, on that occasion, that our former principal was forever a warrior. At 87, he looked as handsome as he did when I was 18. He was still as strict and disciplined as he made each of us be. Above all, I noticed, and my colleagues did too, that before his towering presence, I became as childlike as a son would be before a loving father. We spent 30 minutes interviewing him after which we both sang the CKC anthem “May the Fame of our College Last Forever.” To my surprise, he belted the last note a notch over the rise of my youthful voice. His hearty chant of that timeless song wiped the stains of the inglorious ink of age and ill-health from his wrinkled face. We left him visibly happy but he did not leave us empty handed. My colleagues and I fell on our knees before him praying for a Father’s blessing. He blessed them as a priest but blessed me also as a father for I was more than an interviewer, more than a writer and more than a chronicler of the tales of ‘Amaka Boys.’ I was, I am and will ever remain son of a priest.
Odili Ujubuonu, A novelist and Marketing Communications Consultant, writes from Awka, Anambra State.