Just before Kenya gained internal self-rule, only Pumwani School offered post-primary education to the natives in Nairobi.
So a group of missionaries vowed to start a school for all races. Among the missionaries was Prof David Sperling. He joined forces with others to start the first multiracial college, Strathmore, in 1961.
It all began in 1957 when Monsignor Gastone Mojaisky-Perrelli, the new Apostolic Delegate for the British dominions in Eastern and Western Africa, wrote to Opus Dei founder, St Josemaría Escrivá.
Monsignor Mojaisky-Perrelli asked for professionals to realise the dream of many African and Asian students unable to obtain A-levels and proceed to university.
He was looking for people who could establish schools and colleges open to all races. He wanted to start a Roman Catholic University in Kenya.
At the time Makerere College in Kampala was the only one offering degree programmes in East Africa, and it was about to stop admitting students with only school certificates.
The Royal Technical College in Nairobi offered GSC Advanced levels and issued Higher Certificates.
St Josemaria agreed to the request, but insisted the college had to be interracial and open to non-Catholic and non-Christian students with admission based on academic merit.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to do,” Prof Sperling recalls. “But there was an urgent need for it. In Nairobi only Pumwani was offering secondary education to Africans.”
There were several challenges. For one, it would take a lot to convince the colonial authorities to grant permission to start an interracial school given the existing bad blood between whites and Africans.
Prof Sperling, Kevin O’Bryne, Ed Hernandez and Silvano Borruso moved to Kenya to help establish Opus Dei as well as to set up the college.
The four men never married as they had dedicated their lives as lay members of Opus Dei to this enterprise.
They still had no funds, and persuading the mostly white residents of Lavington estate to agree to the construction of a multiracial A-level school in their neighbourhood was not a walk in the park.
But once most of the hurdles had been surmounted, the founders decided to call the college Strathmore. The name was chosen because the dirt road that ran next to the college was called Strathcona Road.
The school received its first students on March 6, 1961, with Prof Sperling at the helm. “Our original college was, in fact, an A-level school,” he said.
“It was because of its unique Form Six-only characteristic that we decided to call it a college.” Those who attended recall learning in “a mature setting.” You could take it as a university where students were allowed to drink alcohol.
Commission on Revenue Allocation chief Micah Cheserem, KCB chairman Peter Muthoka, and the first chairman of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi, Prof Dominic Oduor, are all former students also present at Strathmore as the Nation interviewed their former principal.
In 1966, the school introduced a School of Accountancy that started offering part-time programmes in 1982.
In 1986, the government donated five acres on Ole Sangale Road, Madaraka Estate, Nairobi, for a new campus after the Lavington campus became crowded. The same year, Prof Sperling handed over the job of principal to John Branya.
Since he was no longer busy with the management of the school, Prof Sperling went on to do historical research, specialising in Islam in Africa.
The fluent Kiswahili speaker has also taught the subject in secondary schools with excellent results. He also knows the Coast as the research for his PhD thesis was done during visits to many of the villages there.
He taught at the University of Nairobi for many years before returning to Strathmore after it was recognised as a university in 2002.
In addition to his academic work, Prof Sperling took part in and later became a trainer of the Kenyan speed-walking team where he is still fondly remembered.
He is also on the board of the educational charity, the Rahimtulla Trust, and has been instrumental in helping hundreds of Kenyans pay school and college fees.
In 2007 under the guidance of Prof Sperling, the Strathmore Alumni Liaison office became the first institution in East Africa to launch an annual fund.
The idea was borrowed from Harvard University’s Annual Fund.
That same year President Mwai Kibaki awarded the Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear to this man, a Bachelor of Arts degree holder from Yale University, with a master’s from Harvard.
It is often said that he never fails at whatever he puts his mind to, especially in the maintenance of buildings and discipline.
Can that be really true? “Of course, we often fail to meet that standard, but it shouldn’t be for want of trying,” the professor says.
At 76, Prof Sperling continues to teach at Strathmore University.