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Patrick L.N. Seyon, an educator who survived being tortured in Liberia, dies at 82

Dr. Seyon served as president of the University of Liberia and dean of liberal arts at Roxbury Community College.
Dr. Seyon served as president of the University of Liberia and dean of liberal arts at Roxbury Community College.

Having been jailed under a military dictatorship in his home country of Liberia and tortured with 50 lashes twice daily, Patrick L.N. Seyon spoke eloquently from personal experience for the rest of his life as he opposed letting despots gain power.

“Giving autocrats the responsibility to implement democracy is tantamount to leaving the fox in charge of the chicken coop,” he wrote in a 2001 Globe op-ed.

A longtime professor and former dean of liberal arts at Roxbury Community College, Dr. Seyon was 82 when he died Oct. 13 in his Arlington home of Parkinson’s disease, which his wife, Barbara Greene Seyon, said had resulted from the beatings he endured.

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Dr. Seyon was a vice president at the University of Liberia in 1981 when he was jailed on a false accusation of participating in a plot to overthrow the government of Samuel Doe, the country’s military dictator.

Human rights groups designated Dr. Seyon a prisoner of conscience. Jailers taunted him, calling him “the president” as they struck his head with rifle butts and kicked him.

He survived those beatings and, after Doe was killed and his government overthrown, Dr. Seyon returned to Liberia in 1991 to serve for several years as president of the university.

“Universities worldwide have a collective responsibility to humanity in providing knowledge and skills for human survival and preservation of the environment,” he told the Globe in 1994.

Amos Sawyer, who served as president of Liberia’s interim government after Doe was ousted, wrote in a tribute that “20th century Liberia has not had a more selfless, dedicated, and committed public intellectual than Professor Seyon. In the pantheon of leaders of higher education in Liberia, the name of Professor Dr. Patrick Lawrence Nimene Seyon will rank among the best.”

Given what he endured when he was tortured, Dr. Seyon’s mere survival was an accomplishment.

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In 1981, at age 43, he was jailed for two weeks on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Doe regime, which had been in power for about a year.

Dr. Seyon told writer Bill Berkeley that for eight straight days during his imprisonment he was subjected to 50 lashes twice a day — torture sessions in the morning and evening that were referred to as “breakfast and dinner.”

“There were two of them, two soldiers,” Dr. Seyon said of his torturers in an interview for Berkeley’s book “The Graves Are Not Yet Full.”

“One of them used a fan belt from an army truck, doubled up,” Dr. Seyon recalled. “The other used a strip from a rubber tire. The rubber portion of the thing was removed, so that the fiber, the nylon, was exposed. First they put water on your back. Then they sprinkle sand on your back so that when the piece of rubber was used, you get traction. The sensation you got was as if your skin was being pulled off your back.”

The torture left Dr. Seyon “with scars which affected him for the rest of his life,” Sawyer wrote in his tribute. “Yet he never wavered or harbored grudges or assumed a sense of entitlement. He moved on, working for the cause of justice, the rule of law, and good governance in Liberia.”

In the years after being tortured, Dr. Seyon chose a compassionate course in life, his wife said.

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“There were many things that amazed me about my husband, but in particular he was so kind and so gentle,” she said. “And I never got an understanding of how he could have that core after what he went through in Liberia. He always had a smile.”

Born in Sasstown, Liberia, on Sept. 4, 1938, Dr. Seyon was young when his parents divorced. He was only 9 when his father died; his mother died a few years later. Dr. Seyon then lived with his stepmother and the man she married after the death of Dr. Seyon’s father.

His stepparents sent him to a Catholic school run by the Society of African Missions, which offered respite from a home in which Dr. Seyon didn’t feel welcome.

“He had been so distressed by his home life,” his wife said. “Those fathers … had so much impact on shaping him.”

The experience left Dr. Seyon “a man of deep, deep faith,” his wife said.

Seemingly incapable of causing any unnecessary pain, he would use an envelope to scoop up an insect found in their home and send it on its way out the window.

“He couldn’t hurt anything,” she said.

After high school, he graduated from the University of Liberia with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and African history.

As an educator in Liberia, he taught social studies in Monrovia and then served in several positions at his alma mater, including as an administrative assistant to the president, an associate professor, and director of planning and development before becoming vice president for administration.

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He also took time to finish a master’s in secondary school administration at Kansas State Teachers College, a master’s in the politics and history of Africa at Stanford University, and a doctorate at Stanford in higher education administration.

Leaving Liberia for medical treatment in West Germany after he was released from jail in 1981, Dr. Seyon eventually resumed his career as an educator in Massachusetts, including as a visiting lecturer and scholar at Harvard University.

Returning to his homeland after Doe was ousted, Dr. Seyon became president of the University of Liberia.

Dr. Seyon’s first marriage ended in divorce.

He and Barbara Green Seyon, an adjunct professor of English and writing at Roxbury Community College, met through a mutual friend and married in 1990.

Back in Greater Boston for good in 1996, he was an administrator and lecturer at Boston University and Northeastern University before becoming a professor and administrator at Roxbury Community College.

“Students adored him. He always gave, he always shared,” his wife said. “He inspired. He made people want to learn, get an education, and love doing so.”

A service has been held for Dr. Seyon, who in addition to his wife leaves three children from his first marriage, Marina Seyon of Silver Spring, Md., and Lord Tuan Seyon and Letecia Seyon, both of Dallas; a sister, Patricia Edgehill of Luton, England; six grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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“Patrick touched many, many lives,” his wife said. “I don’t think he understood, even when he was with us, the power of his presence.”

Sawyer said that Dr. Seyon had a lasting impact on the University of Liberia and his home country, and concluded his tribute: “Thank you, Patrick, for all your efforts to make Liberia better.”

Dr. Seyon was also generous in random encounters, even if he didn’t know the name of the person he was helping.

Barbara recalled a bitter cold evening when a homeless man approached them as they left a Harvard Square restaurant and walked back to their car.

“Patrick took his coat off and put it around the man’s shoulders,” she said. “He knew what it meant to give because so much had been given to him, and I absolutely loved him for it.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.