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A mentor passes

By Winford James

He left quietly, without warning, against my expectations this Christmas month. He was in his second year of retirement and, though he had had heart surgery a couple of years earlier, he had recovered nicely, quickly regaining his force and dynamism, and walking tall, strong, and purposeful along the corridors we shared at UWI and CXC. For all of his life, he had been a decidedly energetic person, and the pace of his recovery, fuelled in part by his good Tobagonian stock, had reassured me; he was going to be with us for a long while yet.

So, when, on the day he would pass, a School of Education colleague told me, in this grim kind of way, that he was "low, very low", I had a sense of foreboding. And when, in the night, I opened my email, I blurted, "Oh God, no!" He had gone. Oh God, he had gone.

And my soul wept...He had been a big brother and mentor to me, and I had been hugely impressed.

I first met him when I was a Diploma in Education student at UWI a hundred years ago. He was a young lecturer then, teaching across the various themes in the Foundations of Education, and he was widely read, very knowledgeable, and very bright. I remember being particularly impressed by a lecture he gave on the need for teachers to educate their emotions and those of their students, and this was easily some 17 years before Daniel Goleman burst into international fame with "novel" ideas on emotional intelligence in his 1995 book. I also remember him suggesting to me, in a way no one had before, that both Jesus and Mao Zedong (formerly Tse-Tung), had been "disruptive" leaders, forcing me into unfamiliar domains of reflection. (These days, of course, notions like "disruptive technology" and "disruptive leader" are a commonplace, especially in the economics of innovation.)

When I went to Bishop's High, I did not meet him. He had, like so many Tobagonians, already left for Trinidad to complete his education, along with contemporaries like Morgan Job and Orville London, with whom he shared a bench at Bishop's. But I was to meet him, again, at the School of Education when I joined the staff in the late nineties and where we were colleagues until his unexpected passing this Christmas month, 2012. And there I learned to appreciate and respect him all over again.

As a colleague, he was Head of the School; specialist in the Teaching of Social Studies, Educational Leadership, and Educational Administration; and generalist in Research and a variety of matters related to education. His office was down the corridor from mine and I used to drop by to have the occasional chat on educational, political, economic, cultural, and religious matters from an academic as well as casual perspective.

He was never too busy for these limes and could go on and on, moving from one topic to another with the ease of an intellectual maestro. His thinking was always incisive, based as it was on a great social framing in Tobago (particularly in his village of Mason Hall), on a vast storehouse of information, and a lifetime of teaching others how to understand ideas and teach others to do likewise. He helped me to fine-tune my knowledge and understanding of research, educational administration in Trinidad and Tobago, and local culture.

There's no one that I know who understands the education system in Trinidad and Tobago as well as he did. He seemed to know everything and always had a narrative to tell. I formed the view that he had an encyclopedic mind. He simply had a big brain.

But it was his stories about Tobago, especially those about his childhood, and his empathy for people that impressed me the most. I learnt, for example, that he walked to and from Bishop's High for school —roughly 16 miles every day; that he worked at the Mirandas' Club La Tropicale in Bacolet while he was a schoolboy—to help out the family, of course; and that he had to walk as well; that he learned to be a leader and organiser of his siblings from those sacrificial days—a role which extended to the new generations that came along and which he would play up to his passing. I learnt about the sociology of village life in Tobago, especially about adult relationships and about parental responsibility, even in the most irretrievable of circumstances.

And his empathy seemed to have no limits. He would bring peace and comfort to people in the most difficult and tangled of situations, using his educated emotions. He would approach all problems with equanimity and with an assurance of solutions. He never raised his voice and he managed displeasure with the philosopher's dispassionateness. He was a lifeline to his family, especially his children and grandchildren whom he treated with exemplary care and sacrifice. Around him, one mostly experienced psychic comfort.

He has gone from us, Carol Keller has—earlier than we expected or wanted. I shall miss our academic and casual limes down the corridor. I shall miss his encyclopedic mind and sharp intellect. And I shall miss his Tobagonian narratives. I expect him to rest in peace.

The School of Education has lost a giant, and two of the tasks it should set itself are compiling his work and developing a festschrift in his honour.

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