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John Maxwell is dead

The gladiator-journalist fought to his last breath

BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive Editor - Operations allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, December 11, 2010    

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JOHN William Maxwell, the gladiator-journalist whose biting pen helped to shape a generation of news men and women, took his last breath at 5:15 pm yesterday, aged 76.

Maxwell, regarded as the journalist's journalist, suffered respiratory failure after slugging it out with lung cancer which he battled with customary courage since 2008.

"He died very peacefully at home," his Netherlands-born wife of 20 years, Dr Marjan deBruin, said last night.

"John died the way he would have wanted, not lingering on given his weak condition," she told the Observer.

Maxwell who spoke openly about his smoking and drinking, once describing himself as a member of a group of university "thinkers and drinkers", had given up both, saying, "I had done enough for the industry." But apparently too late.

He fought the cancer vigorously, including two visits for treatment in the Netherlands. On his second visit, he was told by doctors they could do no more to fight the cancer, and Maxwell chose to return home to end his days in his beloved Jamaica.

As a demonstration of the love and admiration he enjoyed, Maxwell was able to raise US$80,000 in less than a week to meet the cost of an air ambulance to bring him home as he could not travel by commercial airline.

Gordon "Butch" Stewart, who was among those who helped to bring Maxwell back to Jamaica and was a long-time admirer of the journalistic iconoclast, said last night the news had left him in shock.

"The passing of John Maxwell represents an event of seismic proportions in the journalism profession. I have known John a long time. He worked alongside my father who was chief engineer at the then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) where the two were inseparable," said Stewart.

Maxwell was born in a house at Duncans, Trelawny, which slaves a century or so before had lovingly built for the Baptist missionary William Knibb, after the anti-abolitionist planters had burnt his home to the ground.

He was born into a family of politicians. His father was a Baptist pastor and politician; and two maternal uncles were (JLP) Members of the House of Representatives.

His mother, the former Zelma Thelwell, was one of Jamaica's first fashion designers.

Maxwell won deep admiration among his peers and his compatriots at large for his fearless journalism, in which he faced down prime ministers, was fired more than any other reporter and ended up preparing future journalists at the University of the West Indies, Mona in St Andrew.

His journalism odyssey, which began at the Gleaner in 1952 after he left Jamaica College and Calabar, meanders through an unending series of colourful, often controversial anecdotes, pregnant with historical significance.

"Trenchant, fearful of no one, fully armed and suited up to do battle at the drop of a hat, Maxwell is a type of gladiator wielding a merciless pen," was how one interviewer described him.

Eli Matalon, the former PNP security minister, clearly driven to distraction, once described Maxwell as "an over-educated Rasta".

After The Gleaner, he edited the Public Opinion newspaper which was owned by the People's National Party (PNP) but secured his place in the annals of journalism when he started and hosted the Public Eye talk show on JBC radio.

An often exasperating host, Maxwell opened his microphone to thousands of powerless domestic helpers — many slaving away in shameless households — by inspiring a National Minimum Wage.

In later years, he built up an even greater following with his weekly column, Common Sense in the Sunday Observer, which he used to wage a long, often biting campaign for the recognition of Haiti.

Maxwell is survived by his wife and three children, Leah, a photographer, Matthew, director of a small corporate communication company, and Katy, a film animator, all from previous marriages.

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