When William Ellery “Wilber” James was initiated into Kenya’s Tharaka tribe in 1971, elders named him M’Mugira – “the one who goes away and returns with something precious.” It’s a name typically reserved for horse thieves.
In James’ case, though, the name honored the $50,000 he obtained for the region’s first high school, which he established while serving in the Peace Corps. In the years that followed, he’s lived a vibrant life of service that included creating the prototype for the AmeriCorps community service program; co-founding Catholic University in Angola; and pursuing a 40-year career as a global energy entrepreneur.
James spoke at the President’s Lyceum on Tuesday, Jan. 22, accompanied by his wife, Janet. The event, hosted by Palm Beach Atlantic President William M.B. Fleming, Jr., and his wife, Pam, allows distinguished visitors to share their experiences and insights with the PBA students who convene for dinner and discussion.
A small boy with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADD, James had a difficult childhood. “I was a terrible student,” he said. “I was called slow. As a little boy I knew I was different. I knew that things weren’t going well for me. I had to find a way to get through life, so I started to study people. I started to figure out if I could understand what they’re doing, maybe I could get them not to pick on me. What I learned as a child is that people are important. I took a bad situation and turned it into a good one. For the rest of my life, I’d sit across a business table from somebody and I could figure out what that person wanted, and it really served me well.”
Keen to grow and create, James’ life took a fascinating series of turns. At college in Denmark, he majored in Eskimo Administration. He went into the Peace Corps, ultimately serving in Kenya after the Libyan government fell to a strongman named Muammar Gaddafi. James built the Tharaka Secondary School; it went up brick by brick, because the village’s brick-making machine made only one at a time. He worked as a carpenter. He and Joseph P. Kennedy II pioneered Citizens Energy Corp., a not-for-profit energy company that gave away more than $60 million in home heating oil grants to needy New Englanders. Later, to help subsidize that work, he would expand into for-profit energy trading, conservation, and exploration. At 73, he remains in leadership with RockPort Capital Partners, a venture capital firm specializing in energy.
The constant? The relationships he’s formed along the way. “Everything in my life is connected by a dotted line. Everybody I’ve ever met, everything I’ve ever done,” he said. “The individuals that I’ve met along the way are the keys to my life.”
He shared 22 pieces of wisdom for the students to take away, and many of those centered around relationships as well: Make new friends throughout your lives. Bring people together. Be a mentor. Seek out mentors.
James concluded with an appeal to the students to grasp the value of hard work. “I think the power of positive thinking, high energy, innovation and creativity, with hard work, are the keys to my success,” he said. “I still have a sense of childlike wonder every morning that I get up. My hope is to serve. My hope is to serve other people. My hope is to make the rest of my life meaningful.”
Lucson Pierre, a sophomore computer science major attending his first President’s Lyceum, said, “There’s not a thing that Mr. James spoke about today that I haven’t wrestled with.” Lucson, who lived in Haiti until he was 17 and served a 7-year tour in the U.S. Marine Corps, had his own struggles in school. As he matured, he also spent a lot of time wondering about how to help people and how to implement novel ideas, much as James has. “I’m going to be thinking about this night for a long time.”