Vicky Karugu stands at a podium
Vicky Karugu accepts an honorary doctorate degree on behalf of her late father, James B. Karugu '62, who was one of the first students from Africa to study at BGSU. (BGSU photo/Craig Bell)

Honoring a global trailblazer: James B. Karugu ‘62 given a posthumous honorary doctorate during BGSU 2024 Spring Commencement

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Karugu, one of the first African students to study at BGSU, became Kenya’s second attorney general and a prosperous coffee farmer. His daughter traveled to accept the honor.

As Bowling Green State University prepares for its 2024 Spring Commencement, a poignant moment of recognition will take place during the ceremonies.

This year, BGSU will posthumously bestow an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree upon James B. Karugu '62, a distinguished alumnus and Kenya’s second attorney general. Karugu’s remarkable journey from BGSU to the corridors of power in Kenya serves as an enduring testament to the transformative power of education.

“As a public university for the public good, BGSU is honored to posthumously recognize alumnus James Karugu,” BGSU President Rodney K. Rogers said. “A steadfast public servant and a former attorney general of the Republic of Kenya, Mr. Karugu demonstrated such a meaningful commitment to serve others and to make communities better. We are proud to posthumously award him an honorary doctorate of public service.”

Karugu’s legacy stands as an inspiring example of what can be achieved through higher education, perseverance and a global perspective. The honorary degree celebrates his exceptional contributions to the legal field, his unwavering commitment to justice and his enduring legacy. His daughter, Vicky Karugu, will be present to accept the honorary degree on his behalf, honoring a Falcon whose impact reverberates across continents.

The journey to BGSU

Karugu’s late 1950s journey from the rural landscapes of Kenya to the BGSU campus was driven by his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a desire to excel. Born with a natural curiosity and a tenacious spirit, Karugu’s academic prowess quickly became evident during his formative years in Kenya. As he navigated his educational path, he became increasingly aware of the opportunities that awaited him beyond his home country’s borders.

Kenya was still under British colonial rule and in the midst of an intense struggle for independence. In a biographical sketch collected through interviews by BGSU geography professor and Global Village Director Dr. Kefa Otiso and Dr. Ng’ang’a Irungu, Karugu recalled the moment he realized that the law would be the passion to drive him:

“I once was a young boy with dusty, bare feet, and clothed in the uniform of St. Peter Claver Primary School as I sat in the public gallery of the High Court of Kenya. I was there to support my father in a legal dispute. Looking down in fascination at the men in wooly white wigs arguing away eloquently; at ease with incomprehensible legal jargon and Latin phrases. Just like few of us will experience love at first sight, few will experience passion and meaning at first experience,” he wrote.

Karugu attended the prestigious Holy Ghost College Mangu in Thika, Kenya, where he was shaped by the school's strict code of ethics, discipline and character. He credits his early education - and his school's distinctive uniform - as the catalyst for learning about studying in America and discovering BGSU.

"A former deputy mayor of Nairobi, Mr. Mark Kaigwa, noticed me in my uniform as I stood waiting for a bus for home one evening. ... A former Mangu student himself, he took me under his wing and encouraged me to pursue my dream," Karugu recalled. "He introduced me to Dr. Julius Kiano, who held a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley (the first Kenyan ever to do so). Dr. Kiano further emboldened me, advising me to visit the American Embassy in Nairobi for more information about studying in America."

Man stands in front of University Hall
James B. Karugu, known on campus as "Jim," stands in front of University Hall on the BGSU campus.

Academic excellence and cultural exchange

Myriad formative experiences helped shaped Karugu during his time as a student at BGSU and his arrival signaled a new chapter in the University's global engagement, bridging cultures and fostering understanding.

Karugu’s academic pursuits were fueled by an insatiable curiosity. His political science studies challenged him intellectually, but it was the vibrant exchange of ideas within the University’s diverse student body that truly enriched his education.

As president of the International Students’ Society, he found himself at the intersection of cultures, organizing events, sharing stories and building lasting friendships. The wooly white wigs of the High Court of Kenya were replaced by spirited debates in BGSU classrooms, where he honed his legal acumen and developed a global perspective.

Beyond the classroom: Jobs, service and community

Karugu’s journey extended beyond textbooks and lecture halls. He worked tirelessly, taking on various campus jobs — from janitorial duties to operating the campus switchboard. His commitment to hard work mirrored the ethos of BGSU, where students were encouraged to engage actively in their own education.

As he balanced academics and employment, he also babysat for another future BGSU legacy alumnus. In what would be an early meeting of iconic BGSU alumni, Karugu babysat future Olympian Scott Hamilton when Hamilton's father, Dr. Ernest Hamilton, head of the University’s biology department, and his wife, Dorothy, offered Karugu free room and board in exchange for the duty.

"It was a tough job. I didn't know how to cook anything," Karugu relayed with a chuckle to John Kamau of Kenya's Nation Media Group in 2018. These experiences shaped him, teaching him resilience, adaptability and the value of community.

A man holds a snow shovel in a black and white photo.
James B. Karugu '62 shoveled snow from residents' driveways to make extra money in Bowling Green.
Dorothy Hamilton, James Karugu, an unknown man, and Dr. Ernest Hamilton stand outside a house in the early 1960s in Bowling Green.
Dr. Ernest Hamilton, head of the BGSU biology department, and his wife, Dorothy, offered James Karugu free room and board in exchange for babysitting their son, future Olympian Scott Hamilton.

Attorney general to coffee entrepreneur

Karugu’s journey to BGSU was not only a personal achievement but also a testament to the power of international partnerships. His graduation in 1962 marked a historic milestone for both BGSU and Kenya. Equipped with his degree, Karugu returned to Kenya and embarked on a distinguished legal career. He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Kenya’s second attorney general.

As attorney general, Karugu faced significant challenges, including combating corruption within the judiciary. His commitment to justice and integrity left an indelible mark on Kenya’s legal landscape. His legal legacy serves as a beacon for future generations, demonstrating that education, perseverance and a global perspective can transform lives and shape nations.

After his tenure as attorney general, Karugu embarked on a new chapter — one that took him away from the corridors of power and into the serene landscapes of his Kiamara coffee farm in the outskirts of Kiambu town. Here, amidst the rustling coffee plants and the rich Kenyan soil, Karugu found solace and purpose. His decision to retreat from public life was deliberate, driven by a desire for an honest living and a connection to the land.

BGSU alumnus James B. Karugu portrait
Media accounts of the time described James B. Karugu as an ethical professional who would not be pushed around.

Kiamara Farm, historical and expansive, became more than a source of sustenance; it symbolized resilience and self-sufficiency. Karugu, alongside his wife, Margaret (now late), and their four children — Vicky, Mwaura, Rose and Githara —tended to the coffee plants, the rhythm of farm life replacing the hustle and bustle of Nairobi.

Recognition and legacy

In 2010, BGSU recognized Karugu as one of its top 100 alumni. His impact extended far beyond the University’s borders.

In her recent letter of support, Dr. Ellen Schendel, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, aptly captured his influence:

“By setting out to gain a college education from BGSU, Mr. Karugu created a path for many other African students to take, including other young people from Kenya. He is thus the first of a whole community of Falcon alumni who are forever a part of BGSU while living, working and creating good in Kenya.”

Dr. Marc Simon, chair of the Department of Political Science, emphasized Karugu’s character and suitability for this honorary degree:

“Mr. Karugu has demonstrated not only a stellar career in law and public service in Kenya but also the work ethic, integrity and strength of character that are important for an honorary degree candidate at BGSU.”

BGSU President Carol Cartwright and alumnus James B. Karugu
Carol Cartwright, the first woman to serve as president of BGSU, presents a Centennial Alumni Award to James B. Karugu '62, the first Kenyan student to graduate from the University.

Otiso, BGSU professor and fellow Kenyan, highlighted the University’s global impact through Karugu:

“By rising to become Kenya’s second attorney general, Mr. Karugu also proves that BGSU has long been A Public University for the Public Good in Ohio, the U.S. and across the globe.”

In his own words in 2010, Karugu reflected on the transformative power of his BGSU education:

“I must take this opportunity to record my deep, profound and heartfelt gratitude to BGSU, not only for hosting me as a foreign student but in changing my life completely, from a village herd boy to a successful lawyer and farmer.”

Karugu passed away on Nov. 10, 2022, but his impact endures. His story reminds us the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries, and the seeds planted at BGSU continue to bear fruit across continents.

Through this honorary degree, BGSU pays tribute to a trailblazer who blazed a path from Kenya to Ohio and back, exemplifying the impact of higher education, resilience and global connections.

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Media Contact | Michael Bratton | | 419-372-6349

Updated: 05/03/2024 10:07AM