Clement Onyemelukwe (1933-2020). Image: Catherine Onyeelukwe via Facebook
Clement Onyemelukwe, often called the “Father of Electricity” in Nigeria and first Nigerian to wed a Peace Corps volunteer, has died at age 86.
Clement Onyemelukwe, Nigerian Chief Electrical Engineer of the country's Electricity Corporation, generated international attention when he married Catherine Zastrow, a white Peace Corps volunteer, who had just completed her service in 1964.
Although his parents had rejoiced that he had returned from nine years in the United Kingdom without a foreign white wife, in 1963 he met Catherine in Lagos.
“Peace Corps Worker to Wed Nigerian Engineer,” was the headline for a brief article in The New York Times from Lagos, Nigeria on Dec. 23, 1964.
According to his death notice, interracial marriage was illegal in Kentucky which was still Catherine's U.S. residence while she was in the Peace Corps.
“When her parents returned to Kentucky after the wedding they had to change their phone number because of hate calls. The couple received telegrams from people all over the world, mostly supportive but a few critical. A photo of the wedding appeared in Life Magazine in January 1965 and was also noted in Ebony Magazine.”
Onyemelukwe initiated the planning and development of the electricity grid still used in Nigeria today when he became Chief Electrical Engineer in 1962.
He left the electricity industry to found Freeman Engineering in Lagos in 1973. In 1976 he founded Colechurch International Ltd, a project management and promotion company, in United Kingdom.
He and his wife Catherine moved to Westport in 1993.
He initially held a residence card, known as a "green card," as he was spending a good part of his time in his home country Nigeria on business.
In 2007 he finally became an American citizen. He was a speaker at the Y's Men and an active library user while working on his latest book or researching business ideas.
His wife Catherine was president of the library board in 1999-2000, prior to becoming the Director of Development for the YMCA. She is an active member of TEAM Westport and The Unitarian Church in Westport.
Onyemelukwe died Jan. 18 in his home in Westport. The cause was metastatic non-small cell, non-smoker's lung cancer.
“Clem was well loved by the community at the Unitarian Church in Westport and others,” his death notice read. “His warm smile, easy laugh, and joy in recounting stories of Nigeria made him an engaging conversationalist. He loved to discuss politics and economics with any and all!”
He is survived by his wife Catherine, their three children, Chinakueze, Elizabeth, and Samuel, and five grandchildren, Kenechi, Nkiru, Teya, Bruche and Ikem. His brother Professor Geoffrey Onyemelukwe and three sisters also survive him. He was predeceased by one brother and one sister.
His life will be celebrated on March 7, at 1 p.m., at The Unitarian Church in Westport.
He will be buried in the family compound in his ancestral village beside his parents in April.