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Farewell Roger!

Jamaica in shock as jovial agriculture minister Clarke dies in US of suspected heart attack

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, August 29, 2014    

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THE bell tolled yesterday for flamboyant and jovial Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Roger Harold Clifford Clarke.

Clarke, 74, succumbed to what medical sources suspect to be a "massive heart attack" in the United States. Ironically, he was at a Florida airport awaiting a flight to Jamaica after being reportedly cleared by his doctors following back surgery and several weeks of rehabilitation when he fell ill for the final time.

In the immediate and chaotic aftermath of the senior parliamentarian's death there were variations in the official reports.

The ruling People's National Party, to which Clarke devoted his entire mature years, stated that the Central Westmoreland Member of Parliament, often called 'Red Poll Bull' because of his size, collapsed at the Fort Lauderdale Airport in Florida, United States and was pronounced dead at hospital.

The Office of the Prime Minister later in another news release confirming Clarke's death, said that he died in a Florida hospital where he had completed surgery on a bad back.

By late afternoon, a statement attributed to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said that Clarke complained of chest pains and discomfort while he was at the Miami International Airport, en route to Jamaica, after which paramedics were called in. He was rushed to the University of Miami Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 11:30 Miami time or 10:30 Jamaica time, Simpson Miller said.

Apart from his political colleagues and thousands of admirers and supporters in Jamaica and overseas, the Glen Islay, Westmoreland-born Clarke leaves behind widow Sandra, who accompanied him on the trip for treatment last month, a son and daughter.

Reports of the politician taking his own discharge from hospital in order to return home and assume his duties as agriculture minister were indirectly put to rest yesterday by the later Simpson Miller news release, which also said that the likeable Clarke had successfully completed surgery on his back and had been cleared by doctors to return home.

Clarke supported Simpson Miller with a magnet and steel-like political loyalty for several decades and already political analysts have said that his death will leave a massive void in the Simpson Miller administration, as he was seen as one of, if not the closest member of the Cabinet to Simpson Miller.

Scores of organisations and individuals yesterday spared no accolade in describing the Manning's High School past student's role in Jamaica's development.

Always accompanied by an infectious wit, Clarke entered elective politics in 1986, after working in the local sugar industry, and for the Coptic agriculture organisation in St Elizabeth.

He won the Balaclava Division in North East St Elizabeth and was elected Mayor of Black River and chairman of the St Elizabeth Parish Council by his peers.

As the story goes, Clarke wanted to run in the general election of 1989 over the incumbent Sydney Pagon, who many had said was too old for politics, but was called aside by then Prime Minister Michael Manley and told not to challenge Pagon in a constituency run-off.

By the Local Government election of 1990, a year after the PNP returned to national leadership after a nine-year absence, Clarke was again made mayor, a position he held until 1991 when a by-election emerged, following Pagon's death.

He won the seat over the JLP's JC Hutchinson, now MP for North West St Elizabeth, and was soon after appointed minister of state in the Ministry of Agriculture. By 1995, Clarke had been promoted by then Prime Minister P J Patterson to minister of local government and works, and three years later he was sent back to the Ministry of Agriculture to assume the role of minister.

Clarke sat in the minister's chair for nine years until the government changed in 2007 with a close victory by the Jamaica Labour Party over the PNP.

But before that time he had indicated to Simpson Miller, who succeeded Patterson as PNP president and prime minister in 2006, that he would relinquish the stranglehold that he had on North East St Elizabeth, which he dominated for a fraction over 15 years, due to failing health.

By then, young Senator Kern Spencer had been thrown into the political training ring, and had essentially taken control of the North East St Elizabeth organisation. After passing through several rounds of campaign jabs and uppercuts, Spencer became the undisputed PNP candidate for the constituency in the 2007 contest.

However, Clarke's freedom to fish at his own leisure, play dominoes and plant roses when he chose to, was postponed by Simpson Miller, who, upon the advice of a certain party elder, demanded of the emerging political retiree that he unpack his bags and head to Central Westmoreland in a seat that was vacated by the controversial. Dr Karl Blythe, since Spencer was firmly planted in North East St Elizabeth.

All told, Clarke won six general elections — four in North East St Elizabeth and two in Central Westmoreland, and two in local government.

A former chairman of the Alliance of Ministers of Agriculture, Clarke was also a founding member of that august group.

Among his last duties was the move to implement a traceability system for cattle, which would involve tagging Jamaica's entire cattle population, which was designed to reduce praedial larceny.

Prior to the general election of December 29, 2011 and his subsequent appointment of minister of agriculture and fisheries on January 6, 2012, Clarke told the Jamaica Observer to wait a while longer for his retirement, following the publishing of an article in the Sunday Observer which speculated about his imminent retirement from politics.

"Wa you a try run me out a politics for, man? How you want a young, fit bway like me fi retire," he stated.

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