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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
Winifred Massaquoi celebrated her 90th birthday this spring surrounded by 250 family members and friends and the Montgomery County Council, who feted the Olney woman’s significant accomplishments and contributions, both local and global.
The council declared May 4 “Winifred Olivia Railey Massaquoi Day” and Councilman Will Jawando (D-At large) presented her with a proclamation that encouraged the community to take note of her “example in living a life full of joy, professional achievement and volunteer service for the common good.”
Winifred Massaquoi said she first met Jawando at Ross Boddy Neighborhood Recreation Center in Sandy Spring, when he was campaigning for his council seat.
She gave him a copy of her memoir, written in 2016 and titled “Joy-Joy In My Heart: The Girl from Greenville-Sinoe, Liberia.”
That encounter led to the proclamation.
“I was honored to be able to join Dr. Massaquoi and her family and present her with a council proclamation at her birthday celebration earlier this spring,” Jawando said.
Massaquoi was humbled and honored by the festivities.
“I had told my children I didn’t want a party, but it was a family reunion,” she said. “I was too proud.”
Winifred’s son, Nathaniel Massaquoi, said the event was a “labor of love,” with many friends and family putting in time, talent and treasure.
The joy began
Winifred Massaquoi has lived in Olney since 1995 and has been a resident of Montgomery County since 1976.
But her story begins on April 25, 1929, when she was born in Liberia, West Africa.
Liberia was founded in 1820 as a home for freed African-American slaves from the United States.
In 1948, she graduated from high school as valedictorian. She was the first person in her family to graduate, and the first female from Sinoe County to receive a high school diploma.
At a graduation celebration, her aunt, who had raised her, sang, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.” That memory sparked the title for Winifred’s memoir.
The book tells the compelling story of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, ranging from socializing with dignitaries, including royalty and heads of state, to being destitute.
In person, Massaquoi tells the story of her life in such vivid detail, it is as if it all happened yesterday.
She is proud of her accomplishments, wanting to show all of her citations, proclamations and certificates of achievement she has received.
She has met icons, including Queen Elizabeth and Muhammed Ali, and played bridge with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. She pages through her book, pointing out the highlights — in particular, the photos with dignitaries and celebrities.
But her life has been full of challenges, as well. She has experienced having no job, no money and no place to live.
She and her late husband, Nathaniel Massaquoi, the former Secretary of Public Instruction for the Republic of Liberia, had three children — Natalie, Julia and Nathaniel.
She beamed with pride when talking about her family — her family in Liberia, her children and grandchildren.
Her academic accomplishments include a Bachelor of Arts degree in education and an honorary doctorate from the University of Liberia, a master’s degree in counseling from San Jose State University, and a PhD candidacy in educational counseling from the University of Southern California.
She served as the Liberian Delegate to the United Nations and on the Liberian Delegation to UNESCO (United Nations Educational. Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Uruguay.
She served as the educational counselor at the Embassy of Liberia in Washington, D.C.
After the coup d’état that occurred in Liberia in 1980, she remained in the United States and continued to practice her expertise at the Phelps-stokes Fund, African–American Institute, United Schools of America at the Embassy of the Republic of Egypt.
Her final positions before retirement at age 87 were in workforce development — for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and Montgomery Works.
‘Grateful beyond words’
At age 86, Winifred Massaquoi was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer.
She said she was given six weeks to live, but more than three years have passed.
Massaquoi was recently again diagnosed with cancer of the brain and lungs, but is confident she will again beat the odds.
“I am not afraid to die,” she said. “When the good Lord comes, I am ready. I have lived a good life.”
Winifred Massaquoi said she wrote the book “off the top of her head” as a legacy to her children and four grandchildren — Georgina, Julianna, Mutiat and Rilwan.
“Because God has given me and permitted me to live a fruitful life beyond four score years, I am writing this autobiography for my children, relatives and friends to know what life this girl from Greenville has lived,” she said. “I am grateful beyond words for all the blessings that God has bestowed upon me.”
The book is a scrapbook of her storied life, complete with photos of momentous occasions and numerous awards and accolades.
She said if she wrote another book, it would be about surviving cancer and all the people who have helped her.
As for the secret to her longevity, she says it’s not really a secret.
“I eat well, and once in a while I drink some red wine,” she said.
She also relies deeply on her faith.
“I am a Christian,” she said. “I love religion and used to be in the choir. My church family is very important to me.”
Winifred Massaquoi loves to garden, and grows roses, other flowers and vegetables. She also loves to dance.
Her book, “Joy-Joy In My Heart: The Girl from Greenville-Sinoe, Liberia” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
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