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Sir Howard Cooke: the leader who was a participant

Everton PRYCE

Wednesday, July 23, 2014    

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THE passing at the envious age of 98 of Sir Howard Cooke — Jamaica's fourth native governor general since Independence in 1962 — has served to shine light on the power of idealism in public life adopted by the generation of Jamaicans who were moulded by the events of 1938 to participate to the fullest, and without equivocation, in the shaping of modern Jamaica.

On the two occasions that I sat down with this man from Goodwill in the parish of St James at his official residence at King's House prior to his retirement in 2006 to be mentored on leadership, national service, and the importance of the family to social stability and national development, I was struck by the complete ease with which he was willing to dispense encouragement even whilst talking and dissecting the tough terrains of politics and his own brand of common sense philosophy. But I don't quite know why I was struck with surprise.

For, like the early People's National Party to which he attached himself when it was more of a movement than a party, he was driven by a strong commitment to the notion that native Jamaicans could be architects of their own fortunes, the creators of their own destiny, and must work towards becoming self-governing.

Sir Cooke held steadfast to these views, despite being the Queen's representative in his native land, simply because his experience in the classroom and in business, the West Indies Federation, the parliament of an independent Jamaica, and the University of London at the height of British expressions of racism against West Indian immigrants convinced him that he would have to help in whatever way he could to build a Jamaica in which he — and those of his ilk — would be more than second-class citizens.

Of course, he, like the early pioneers of the national movement, knew instinctively that none of this would be possible unless the "real people" in the land — as Norman Manley described them — were ready for it.

And to be ready, Sir Cooke knew they not only had to be fed, housed, and clothed, but that they also had to have access to the opportunities for training and development of the mind and the building of character.

No wonder, then, that he targeted the young and focused on their education for a great portion of his early career. And, he did much more.

He gave voluntary service with philanthropic zeal to countless causes and institutions. He ploughed back into the assistance of the disadvantaged time, treasure, and talent. Undoubtedly, this man loved Jamaica. He saw the best in it and talked only of its positive qualities.

This, perhaps, lends authenticity to the legend that entertains that he was sometimes irritatingly stubborn in dealing with issues attracting differing positions to his own, especially while he was a disciple in the political vineyard having to contend with his contemporaries. Those who laboured with him in the PNP reveal that he was quite capable of not suffering fools gladly. And, like so many great leaders, was impatient of the clutter of irrelevance in debate.

Yet, despite this characteristic, his work while he lived among us was so well grounded that nothing can prevent him in death from taking his place in the gallery of great achievers of modern Jamaica.

And although a man of his great age would have died with disappointment of hopes dashed, a recent televised interview in which he was featured shortly before his death revealed the persistence of more than a glow of hope in the liberation of his beloved Jamaica, which he never abandoned and which he continued to serve as long as he could.

He was, without doubt, a favoured and willing speaker to the very end in the cause of justice, agriculture, labour, national unity, and the poor. And what made him a great and memorable governor general in this outpost of modern Jamaica was his gift of giving hope to victims of misfortune, encouraging our leaders to action, and challenging politicians in power or those seeking power.

In my humble view, the life and example of someone like Sir Howard Cooke is a genuine challenge for the current generation of young professionals, entrepreneurs, civil society practitioners, church leaders and governors who all need to understand more deeply that, in today's world, if you are going to lead, you have to participate.

Governor General, the late Sir Howard Cooke, was indeed a participant in the shaping of some of the very institutions and organisations he ultimately led; and he has left behind lessons for all of us, who, like him, must participate even more in shaping this stubborn, wearying, contradictory, yet promising post-colonial society if we are to lead it any at all into the bosom of sanity, productivity and prosperity in the remaining 21st century.

He has left us two years short of his 100th birthday and on the verge of his modern Jamaica, seemingly coming to its sense about what it ought to do about its future.

But his legacy will never be lost to the Jamaica he has left behind as long as the individuals and institutions he impacted continue to see the value of the examples he set for much of his life.

Our truth speaker and physician to the wounds of the soul is among us no more, and leaves behind to celebrate a great life his loving wife and friend, Lady Ivy Cooke and their three children.

As our Parliament prepares to pay tribute to this great son of Jamaica on behalf of a grateful nation, it is worthwhile that we reflect on his life and ensure that we capture its great strengths for the patrimony of the country we are still engaged in building and shaping.

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