Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A true Trini

Former president George Maxwell Richards, known to the population by the fond abbreviation “Max”, was fourth in the line of our Republic’s presidents. He was this country’s first non-lawyer to be appointed to the elevated post and the first head of state of Amerindian ancestry in the Anglophone Caribbean.

During his two-term, ten-year presidency, Max Richards was at the end of photographers’ lenses each Carnival—a costumed president delighting in the annual cultural explosion. Carnival was his special time; he not only played mas but hosted an annual Carnival fete, Friends to the Max, which dissolved to make way for Juss Maxx. Through his love of Carnival, Richards expressed his love of and immersion in national culture. He was widely regarded as a true Trini, grounded and free of many of the residual colonial trappings of the office he occupied.

The presidency was the apotheosis of his national contribution that spanned 86 years and various sectors. A product of Queen’s Royal College, he was trained at United British Oilfields of Trinidad Ltd (UBOT) in Point Fortin. From that company he received a scholarship to study chemical engineering at the University of Manchester. There he completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees before reading for his PhD from the University of Cambridge.

Upon his return, he worked for eight years at Shell Trinidad Ltd, successor to UBOT. From there he joined The UWI’s Department of Chemical Engineering. Between 1980 and 1985 he served as The UWI’s pro-vice chancellor and deputy principal. He acted as principal between 1984 and 1985 before being confirmed in the position in May 1985 until his retirement in 1996. Despite his retirement from the university’s top job, he continued teaching.

His expertise in his field qualified him for membership on the boards of then Trintoc (now Petrotrin) and the National Gas Company (NGC). He also served on the boards of Trinidad Publishing Company, the National Advisory Council and as chairman of the National Training Board and the Institute of Marine Affairs.

His tenure as president was not without public dissent. Six years into his presidency he faced strong calls for his resignation when his appointees to the Integrity Commission all resigned within a week of receiving their instruments even as he departed for an overseas vacation. On May 29, 2009, he spoke to the nation via a televised address defending his office and rejecting the resignation calls.

A man whose lifetime spanned the pre-Independence, pre-Republican era to the contemporary period, Richards demonstrated progressive thinking when he declared in 2008 that he supported calls for a female president because “they (women) tend to be less confrontational, more inclined to look for solutions.”

His passing comes in the midst of his beloved Carnival season that this year unfolds organically around the theme of love and positivity, and following the nomination of the first woman presidential candidate. The fateful coincidence is not lost on a population that will remember him as a cool customer in open-neck shirts and Carnival costumes. His easy-going personality and the warmth of his wife, Dr Jean Ramjohn-Richards, pervaded President’s House from 2003 to 2013. The Express extends condolences to his family and loved ones.