Tolbert ’77 receives Distinguished Achievement Award

Note: This award went to The Rev. William Tolbert III, but was accepted by his son, William Westerfield Tolbert.

The Rev. William Tolbert III, class of 1977, is an inspiration for the power of healing. Growing up in Liberia, he learned of Cornell College through a family friend, Dorothy Newbury, a Cornell education professor and Fulbright Lecturer in Liberia.

He aspired to integrate his interest in economics, sociology, and the arts as part of the bachelor of special studies curriculum. He developed a keen interest in ceramics after taking a course with professor of art emeritus Doug Hanson. From that course, he researched kiln-fired bricks for use in infrastructure rehabilitation and development of the clay and tile industry in Liberia, which is abundant with red and white clay.

He returned to Liberia following graduation and three years later his father, Liberian President William Tolbert Jr., was assassinated as part of a military coup d’état. The coup led to several decades of civil war and economic turmoil for a country founded by freed American slaves. He and other members of the family not slain by the military were placed in a military prison for 20 months and 10 days.

In 1983, he returned to the United States to marry his high school sweetheart, Henrietta. His brother, Stephen, also graduated from Cornell College that year.

He received a Master of Arts in Christian education from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1986. He returned to Liberia that year and found the nation’s economy in ruins. Over the course of the following decade, he continued to travel to Liberia to begin the rebuilding process.

The first civil war ended in 1997 and he moved back in 1999 to demonstrate confidence in the president and to help unify the nation. As pastor for Zion Praise Baptist Church in rural Bentol City, he hoped to bring Liberians together in a process of personal and public reconciliation. Rather than going into politics, he saw his role of rebuilding as both a religious and a socio-economic healer.

He demonstrates through his words and actions that peace is the only viable option, and that for too long the nation has focused on what divides rather than underscoring the unifying similarities. He has made numerous calls for people across the diaspora to heal the wounds caused by the conflicts and to celebrate his nation’s heritage, oneness, uniqueness, and diversity as Liberians.  

In recognition of his work to unify the people of Liberia, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed him to the role of Peace Ambassador in 2015. In this role, he is charged with creating a stable, lasting peace in the country, and working closely with the National Reconciliation Commission.

His quest for peace and his life is an inspiration to all. It is with great pride that the Board of Trustees join the Alumni Association Board of Directors in presenting Reverend William Tolbert III their highest honor, the Distinguished Achievement Award.

Accepting the award on behalf of Rev. Tolbert, who is unable to be with us this weekend, is his son, William Westerfield Tolbert.