Perhaps it was his exceptional humility or his smile. Or perhaps, it was the memories of the chalk he scribbled and changed many lives for the better that propelled his name to a whole new level.
Wilson Chepkoit, or Mwalimu as he was fondly known, wove his way into the hearts of many through his love for teaching and his strong believe that education defined destinies and churned out better people.
A staunch educationist until he breathed his last on April 27 following a battle with cancer, Chepkoit became the epitome of education, his large family a testament to his hardwork through the different professions his children curved for themselves.
To many who chanced on him by the roadside on his usual morning walk, it was the hearty greetings, laughter and brief talk they will remember him for.
To his former students, it was the memories of chalk in hand and the lid of a pen sticking out of his jacket that hallmarked his duty as a teacher.
“He was a staunch disciplinarian who walked one through the talk first. He loved his job so much that he was present throughout the month. He spent his lunch times in the office and whenever one was sick and on medication, he was there to dispense the mid-day dose without fail,” Isaac Kiprop Chebon, a former student, says.
For Chebon, Mwalimu, was an “ambassador” who invested heavily in education, a man of few words but great deeds.
“He had a large family and was a staunch Christian who always held academic meetings at his home every Friday. He talked to children who would visit his homestead, encouraging us and telling us to keep off bad behaivour. He was just an extra-ordinary teacher, that is why all his children do not have less than a bachelor’s degree,” Chebon adds.
Chepkoit never turned away anyone who wanted remedial classes at his home. He would welcome them, take them through lessons before holding talks and prayers. Chebon literally became a member of the Chepkoit household, sticking among the first batch of his children in primary school.
“I schooled with Ben, Isaac and Chris all the way to university. Mzee first took us to Nairobi when we joined university and used to visit us regularly. None of his children was sent away for lack of school fees. He paid fees for an entire year,” he says.
Even to his children, Mwalimu was always there, strong and assuring that “life was an unfolding miracle”.
“Of all things, three of them stand out about him. He was a great teacher, a mentor and a great father,” Isaac Kipkoech, one of his sons, says.
His quest to cut a niche and set the bar of academic excellence saw him first try his hand in teaching at Kapluk primary school in Baringo Central. That was in 1960 and he was only 22.
His love for teaching saw him pursue studies at Mosoriot Teachers College before joining Salawa primary school where over the years, he became the head teacher.
“He built his extra-ordinary grandfather’s name, Chepkoit, to what it is today. This, he did through the long, painful but rewarding path of education. He treasured education so much he ensured we all got the best he could give.
He also never believed in shortcuts to make money, and all his life, he never put value on money. He lived simple and honestly. You could not pick him in a crowd,” says Alex Kiprotich, one of Mwalimu’s sons.
At some point, he was transferred to Eron primary school and would later return to Salawa. The years he stood in front of a class culminated to three decades of commitment and unrivalled passion after he retired in 1995.
Teaching, to those who knew him, flowed in his blood. A number of his students, including his children, became people of positive influence, spread all over the world.
While teaching, Mwalimu led through example, building up an academic pillar through his own children and those he also supported.
“He was a pioneer educationist who slowly changed everything through the power of education. Almost all of those who passed through his hands in a way made positive changes in the society. He lifted a remote village to where it is and that is why we are celebrating,” Mr Chebon said.
A stickler for rules and order, Mwalimu Chepkoit will be remembered for his generosity, through which he opened the doors to his home to accommodate those who wanted his help.
“A man of exceptional humility, focus, hard work, discipline and commitment to any course he believed in. His lean frame was compensated with a big heart. You also introduced us to a bigger family. The family of friends, relatives and our community and you gave us a sense of belonging,” the family says in their tribute.
“We learnt a lot from him, especially his smartness. He was always neat and looked great. He was concerned about us and especially our education,” Jelimo and Kiprop Kisire, his grandchildren, eulogise him.
To his two widows, Esther Kabon and Magdalene Kobilo, Mwalimu always saw education as a door-opener, the choice giver and a great leveller.
“He ensured none of his children dropped out and the efforts have been richly rewarded,” they say.
And while weaving an academic pillar that would propel his children far and wide, it was not all rosy or easy.
He convened relentless family academic meetings as soon as the school closed and before opening day, to demand better results that would take those in primary to national schools and those in secondary school to university.
This, his children said, made them who they are.
“In him, we learnt the basis for the saying that a truly rich man is one whose children run into his arms when his hands are empty. From when we were so young, much passed through your hands to us. We are because you were,” Ben Chepkoit says in his tribute.
Ben holds two PhDs and is currently a professor at Maryland University College in the US.
“Mzee particularly loved Moi High School-Kabarak. He always wanted us to attain grades that would take us there, which uplifted the family to where it is now from very humble beginnings to an academic household,” Ben says.
For Mercy, her father never married off his daughters without attaining undergraduate degrees and would remind his sons-in-law that his daughters should pursue further education.
“He was the best teacher, always wanted us to be the best. He was a great leader with the unique humility and respect greater than the name he had built. He was just an exceptional mentor, we will miss him but his dreams will live on through us,” she says.
Dr Isaac Chepkoit, the second born in the family, who lives in the US, was among the first batch of students to be enrolled at Moi High School-Kabarak in 1980, signalling the start of the family’s academic journey at the institution.
His admission to Kabarak seemingly opened the way for other family members. Eight of Mwalimu’s sons, two grandchildren and a daughter-in-law have gone through the institution.
Others schooled in other national schools.
In Mwalimu’s brood are engineers, accountants, professors, nurses, communication specialists, teachers and human resource specialists with multiple education accolades.
“His love for education gave us no option but to work. It was a motivation that boosted our performance,” says Kimosop, an engineer with a telecommunication company.