Merrick Needham history maker

Protocol expert is first Jamaican to receive honorary commission as JDF Colonel

Sunday, November 25, 2018

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Ceremonial and protocol consultant Merrick Needham created history last Thursday when he became the first Jamaican to receive a honorary commission by the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF).

Needham, who is a member of the Order of Distinction (Commander Class), a member of the Royal Victorian Order, and a member of the Order of St John, now adds to his credentials the rank of Colonel (Hon) in the JDF.

“I am extremely honoured,” Needham said yesterday when the Jamaica Observer contacted him for a comment. He pointed out that honorary commissions are very rare, even though the practice is well-established within Commonwealth nations.

In the citation read before the presentation of the commission at the JDF's Up Park Camp headquarters in St Andrew, it was noted that Needham has been a dedicated supporter of the JDF for the past four decades and has participated in numerous military activities by freely offering his services in the production of the JDF's Alert magazine over many years, the Change of Command parades as a narrator, and the Military Tattoos in 1983 and 2012.

“He has conducted numerous workshops and seminars across the JDF and has served on a number of boards and committees, including the Sesquicentennial Committee of the JDF Training Depot, the JDF Website Committee, and the board of the Jamaica Military Museum and Library,” the citation read.

It also noted that Needham has helped to coordinate the logistics of several Royal and State visits; was chief executive officer (conferences) at the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat and helped to coordinate heads of government and ministerial-level conferences in a number of countries spanning every continent except Antartica until he was requested to return to Jamaica by the Government.

“Honorary commissions,” the JDF noted, “are granted to ex-service members or distinguished citizens who, through their work, are guardians of the Regimental traditions and history of the Force and who seek to promote the Force's identity and ethos.”

Needham was a subject of the Desmond Allen Interviews published in the Observer several years ago.

Here are excerpts of that interview.

Were it not for World War Two, Merrick Needham might not himself have discovered what Cristobal Colon knew long before was the fairest isle that eyes have beheld. Fleeing war-ravaged England, his parents found refuge in Jamaica and a home for their seven-year old son. It was a home he would spend the rest of his life working to build.

In a strange kind of way, Needham might have been deeply influenced by the war. His vast knowledge of military operations and ranks is rarely matched among civilians, and in him, Jamaica has a foremost expert on the planning and execution of ceremonies that require pomp and pageantry fit for royalty and presidents.

Needham's long career has followed the ups-and-downs course of many outstanding men. He was there at the dawn of Jamaican radio when ZQI became RJR. But he is unlikely ever to forget his eventful stint as general manager of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation ( JBC), that came to a screeching halt over a broadcaster given to hard liquor. He was there at a time when the state-run corporation was beset by problems, not the least of which were rumours of sexual misconduct in high places.

He'll tell tales of excitement while he and J C Proute were embedded with soldiers hunting down Reynold Henry, the son of Claudius Henry after his (Reynold's) group had killed two British infantrymen in 1960. And there would be scary moments and thoughts of death on a mechanically defective helicopter in the New Market flood relief operations. For the enduring story of Frank Merrick Needham, we'll go back to London in England where it began two days before the Christmas of 1933.

Child of war

Merrick traces his family tree back to the year 1102 and to Derbyshire County, England. His father is Joseph Frank Needham, an electrical engineer who was in charge of electrics in the Royal Navy dockyards and fleet, based in the islands to the north of Scotland. His mother is Valerie Needham nee Watson of the famous betting shop name. She was born in Jamaica of British parentage left Jamaica as a very young adult for all of a quarter century before returning with him in 1940.

The year before, World War II had been declared and, as the war raged, England was on tenterhooks. Fears that Adolf Hitler's Germany would invade caused many parents to evacuate their children to countries deemed safe. With Jamaica nestling in the shadows of the mighty United States army, Frank and Valerie decided they would send their only boy to the northern Caribbean island on the other side of the Atlantic. Valerie Needham, who had relatives in Jamaica, accompanied him on the banana boat, the Jamaica Producer, with plans that his father would follow when the war was over.

Young Merrick was sent to St Andrew Preparatory on Cecelio Avenue near Half-Way-Tree Road. He still has fond memories of two wonderful teachers, misses Neita and Anderson. Around that time, Henry Fowler was coaching recalcitrant children, Tino Barovier and John Pringle among them, Needham remembers. When he completed prep school, Merrick was sent to Fowler who had only two classes at the time. Not long after, he acquired land —cheaply — on Hope Road where Priory House was located and expanded his school, naming it The Priory School.

Fowler's philosophy was that students of Priory should be self-reliant and independent. He led them in building their own football field by breaking rocks and constructing classrooms out of bamboo sheets.

A Mid-summer Night's Dream

The war now over, Frank Needham arrived in Jamaica to join his family. Soon after, the Priory headmaster offered him a job to teach mathematics. Daddy Needham would later etch his name in Jamaican history as the man who set up the College of Arts, Science, and Technology (CAST) administratively. In time, CAST would be renamed the University of Technology (UTech).

After his Senior Cambridge Exam and the London Matriculation, it was time to decide Merrick Needham's future. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps into engineering but he scoffed at the idea. Henry Fowler then suggested that Merrick try out for broadcasting, given that he had a big voice. Prior to that, of course, it had been discovered that despite his small stature, Merrick had an unusually big voice. “That came to attention when I played a character in the Shakespeare play, A Mid-Summer Night's Dream, in the first schools drama festival, held at Up Park Camp where the Gun Court prison now is,” he recounts.

In 1951, Needham joined ZQI Radio, later renamed Radio Jamaica. He was 17 years old. The next year, the station was bought out by the British Group, Rediffusion and the station was again renamed RJR ( Radio Jamaica and Rediffusion), then at Seaview Avenue, St Andrew. After his audition, Needham was placed in the record library. At the time, RJR was broadcasting at different points in the day – from 7:00 am to 9:00 am; 12 noon to 2:00 pm and from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm. The broadcast day gradually lengthened to 24-hours.

First time on air

The first time Needham went on air was a grand occasion for his parents and they were glued to the radio. At 3:00 pm he gave the unsponsored time signal which went: “The time is 3 o'clock.” He recalls that his parents were very disappointed that that was all he was made to do. And it was at a time when hardly anybody was listening! But as he gained in proficiency, he was allowed to do the commercial time signal. In short order he was promoted to librarian and then appointed as a regular staff announcer.

“I find it hard to understand now how neophytes can be made to go on air with precious little experience,” Needham comments.

The RJR general manager at the time was William McLurg, a Canadian and there were also people there like Dorothy HoSang who later married Dr Keith Tang; Mickey Hendricks, the sales manager; Lloyd dePass, the chief accountant; Tino Barovier, technical operator; M G Robinson, technical operator; Wally Mathews, the chief engineer; Alma Mock Yen, announcer, and importantly, Roy Lawrence who became known for his outstanding cricket commentaries. Neither Needham nor Lawrence could suspect that a time was coming when they would lock horns in an inglorious fight to the finish.

ZQI's last broadcast

Needham recalls that ZQI's last broadcast came in 1951 after Hurricane Charlie. Roy Lawrence was on air all night only to learn next day that only one subscriber could hear him, as all the transmitters had been knocked off air, as were the rediffusion wires that were piggy-backing on JPS utility poles. Afterwards, the station moved to new headquarters at Lyndhurst Road where they had new bomb-proof studios and began broadcasting as Radio Jamaica.

While at RJR, Needham would relish the opportunity to cover the visit of a very young Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the first to Jamaica by a reigning monarch. Needham's main role was the coverage of the departure leg of the royal party's motorcade to the Montego Bay Airport. He recalls the strain of an outside broadcast because it was not possible to go back to studio once the broadcast had begun. “This came home to me when McLurg and I covered the opening of the Queen's Highway in Trelawny, the first asphaltic concrete highway in Jamaica, during The Queen's visit.”

Needham earned himself a mention in the prestigious British book, Commercial Broadcasting in the British West Indies (Butterworth Scientific Publications – 1956) for his coverage of another Royal visit, that of the Princess Margaret, The Queen's sister. The book noted: “…outstanding broadcasts given by Mr William McLurg and Mr Merrick Needham, among others.”

British soldiers killed

In 1960, Needham, along with J C Proute, the Barbadian-born journalist who was news editor, was embedded with the British and Jamaican soldiers who participated in the island's biggest manhunt to date – for the Reynold Henry, the son Claudius Henry, the semi-black power cult figure, and his supporters. They were blamed for the killing of two British soldiers whom they took by surprise in the Washington Boulevard/ Spanish Town Road area which were “pure bush” at the time. It was a time of excitement for Needham who recalls how hundreds of troops fanned out across the Sligoville Hills where the men were thought to be in hiding.

In 1961, Needham left RJR for JBC. In the intervening years, Micky Hendriks had become the general manager of the JBC and was pulling staff from RJR. Barovier and Robinson, technical operators had preceded Needham, now programme director. He was taken on at the JBC as director of programmes and production. Adrian Robinson was head of programmes and Reggie Carter, head of production. “Hendriks felt there was need for someone to ensure greater co-ordination and cohesion between the two and he recruited me,” says Needham. “I also did the odd broadcast.”

1966 Commonwealth Games

When JBC hired Harry Ennevor, “a very political person who did not know much about broadcasting”, to be its general manager, Needham was appointed to a newly created position, assistant general manager, apparently to take care of the broadcasting side of things. He planned and co-ordinated the JBC's broadcast coverage of the Independence celebrations in 1962, one of his biggest undertakings to date.

In 1966, he switched roles temporarily when he was seconded to the Eighth British Empire and Commonwealth Games, hosted by Jamaica. The then head of the Press Liaison Unit, Alva Ramsay, had very little interest in broadcasting and the British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC) began pushing for a unit to handle the broadcasting needs. A subsidiary broadcasting liaison unit was set up, headed by Needham who assumed responsibility for all arrangements for the 200 Commonwealth broadcasting personnel covering the games.

Sexual misconduct

In the meantime, Ennevor got into trouble at the JBC. Rumours about alleged sexual misconduct swirled about the corporation and it became clear that the general manager was being pushed out. Once again, the JBC was in turmoil. Only two years before, the station was hit by a long and intense strike over the dismissal of George Lee and Adrian Rodway. The board turned to Needham to take over as general manager. This was 1966. He set out immediately to calm the waters, and now regards his success in stabilising the corporation then as his biggest contribution.

Erica Allen

The JBC years were also special for another compelling reason. On air as an announcer was one of the most beautiful women Needham had ever laid eyes on and he lost his heart to Erica Allen. Within a year of joining the corporation, Needham proposed and married Allen who would go on to earn a name as one of the best news readers to be produced in Jamaica. They have two children together: Christopher Needham, and Fiona Needham-Clarke. But the union with Allen would not last.

Neither would the relationship with the JBC. Two years after taking up the job as general manager, Needham found himself in the fight of his life. Roy Lawrence, who had by now joined the JBC was being treated like everybody's blue-eyed boy. Critically, Lawrence was known to love his liquor but could go off the deep bend under its influence.

Firing Roy Lawrence

“He could get away with almost anything, while other staff members would be unfairly disciplined for lesser offences and I decided I would have none of it,” Needham recalls. “I learnt that on one occasion he was suspended with pay.”

After a particularly bad episode, Needham verbally warned the announcer about drinking on the job. Then he followed up with a written warning. When that did not work, he decided to fire Lawrence, a white Jamaican. The board under chairman Ivan Levy blocked the dismissal, apparently because it feared the backlash from the some members of the exclusive Kingston Cricket Club who were big supporters of the broadcaster, Needham says. Feeling undermined, he asked the chairman to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Hugh Lawson Shearer, to thrash out the matter.

On a hazy uneventful Sunday morning, Needham turned up at Levy's house for the meeting with Shearer. The hours went by and Shearer did not show. Concluding that the prime minister had not even been informed about any meeting, Needham hissed his teeth and went home. The following morning, he tendered his resignation, saying he could not uphold the favouritism that was being shown by the board to a member of his staff. People not in the know thought he had resigned over political reasons.

Needham had not given much thought to the future, feeling sure he would find something fairly quickly to replace the JBC job. He was soon to find out how wrong he was. The Lawrence fiasco had a sting in the tail and it boomeranged viciously on Needham. Nobody would touch him.

Commonwealth Summit

Before long, Needham heard that Jamaica would be hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in 1975 and, having developed a keen interest in logistics, decided he'd like to work on the conference as logistics co-ordinator, never mind that he had not done anything of this magnitude before. He met with Claude Robinson, then press secretary to Michael Manley, explaining his interest. After some time, Robinson got back to him to say that they needed a media liaison co-ordinator. He was taken on by the Agency for Public Information ( API), the renamed Jamaica Information Service ( JIS), on contract and titled media co-director.

It was a mammoth task but it would provide Needham the opportunity to show what he was truly worth. He was responsible for over 600 media personnel. Under him also was a police unit headed by Deputy Supt Herman Ricketts, the future Commissioner of Police and Asst Supt Rudolph Hamilton, eventually to become deputy commissioner in charge of operations. For his performance,

Needham was awarded the national honour, Officer of the Order of Distinction (OD) by the Jamaican Government.

That IDB Meeting

In 1979, Jamaica was host to the 20th annual meeting of the Board of Governors of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in the northcoast resort town of Montego Bay. It was the largest meeting to be hosted by Jamaica and it made the 1975 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference look small. The IDB Conference used up all the hotels in MoBay and gobbled up over 125 rooms at the huge Intercontinental Hotel, now Wyndham Rosehall, for offices. Additional offices were built on the hotel premises. There were over 700 delegates, all with support services. Needham was given the job as director of the task force responsible for the conference. When it was successfully concluded, the IDB created an excuse to bring Needham to Washington, saying his one-week all-expense paid visit was for “post-conference consultations”. It was the first time in its 20-year history that the IDB was doing that. What could stop Needham now?

Michael Manley summons

But there was no time to rest on his laurels. As he carefully archived the fast growing pile of commendatory letters, including one from then Finance Minister Eric Bell, Needham was summoned to a Cabinet meeting at Jamaica House. He wasn't sure why Manley had sent for him. He had been glad to get back to Kingston after travelling from the IDB conference in blinding rain. More than 50 inches of rain was dumped on western Jamaica in one night and it had taken him hours to drive from Trelawny to St Ann's Bay.

“I could see only inches in front of me as the rains thundered down,” he recalls. “The weather service people in Miami said they could not understand what had happened over western Jamaica. The rain showed up as a solid wall on their radar screen. It was later determined to be one of the weather phenomena of the century.”

The Newmarket floods

Manley needed Needham to handle what became known as the Newmarket flood relief operations. The deluge had devastated parts of western Jamaica, but none more than the St Elizabeth town of Newmarket and Chigwell in Hanover. Kingston was barely affected. Even after the rains, the waters continued to rise until Newmarket was almost entirely submerged. Jamaica had little in the way of emergency response mechanism and Manley ordered Needham to immediately set up an Emergency Operations Centre, which eventually evolved into the Office of Disaster Preparedness (ODP) and later the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management.

“The concept that was given to me was to bring together representatives from all government departments, the Jamaica Defence Force, the Jamaica Constabulary Force and other relevant organisations like the Red Cross and the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation (UNDRO),” Needham remembers. The overall operation was under the deputy prime minister, P J Patterson to whom Needham directly reported. It also involved people like Franklin McDonald, the future executive director of the ODP; Brigadier Robert Neish; then Lt Col Trevor MacMillan, and Pat Robinson, then with the Red Cross.

A large office was set up at the Ministry of Labour and Welfare. Some of Needham's key staff included Vilma McDonald, Marcia Orsmby, and Judith Allen who had worked with him at the foreign ministry. The relief operation was massive. It called upon MacMillan's newly formed 2 JR, comprising an 800-member battalion with amphibious equipment. After three days, that was withdrawn and a company-size unit of about 120 personnel remained to carry on. Needham, still not yet fully ready, had to take over. He had 50,000 mouths to feed daily and there was no time to waste.

London calling

It was inevitable that Needham's work and reputation would spread beyond the island's shores. This was 1980. In the Secretary-General's office at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, there was general agreement that the best man for the job as Chief Exective Officer (Conferences) was Frank Merrick Needham of Jamaica. When Needham received the offer, he could not refuse it. His job was the servicing and partial co-ordination of all conferences for which the secretariat was responsible. It would pay him more money than he had ever received and he would have to relocate to London. Needham attacked the job with the same energy and meticulousness he had become famous for. In the three years he spent there, he visited 11 countries on every continent, except Antarctica.

Missing Camille Chin

But while in cold, grey London, his mind was on someone who was still in Jamaica. Nothing could fill the aching void in his heart for Camille Chin. He had first seen her while he was doing the Carifesta job in 1976, and she was a liaison aide. Once again, he had found himself enraptured by the beauty of this delectable young woman and he knew he must win her heart in the way he had lost his to her. “I was fascinated by her,” he says. The god of love was kind to him and in time a hot relationship developed between them. Now in London, he was missing her more than ever. There was only one thing he could do. Have her come up and marry her.

Camille Needham, formerly of the education ministry, Caribtours and currently executive director of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association, joined the man she loved in London and married him in the summer of 1981. They have one son, Dominic Needham.

Edward Seaga summons

The couple settled down and Merrick lost all thoughts of going back to Jamaica. He was back in the land of his birth and the country in which he could trace his ancestry to the 12th century. And life was good. Then Prime Minister Edward Seaga called him home.

Seaga, who also held the job as finance minister, was in London for the 1983 Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting. He had known of Needham's reputation before and as he watched him go abut his business with clinical precision, it struck him that he had found the man he was looking for. That year, Jamaica was celebrating 21 years of Independence and Seaga wanted to make a splash of it. He sent his aides to call Needham and asked him if he would be willing to come home to run 'Jamaica 21', if he could arrange to get him released from the Commonwealth Secretariat.

It is in the way of patriots to respond when they are called to serve and Needham was no exception. He told Seaga 'yes' and came home with Camille. Jamaica 21 was being organised under Edmund Bartlett, the minister of culture in the Office of the Prime Minister and Needham reported to him directly, with the title director of specials projects for Jamaica 21. He had hardly landed before other departments in the OPM and the foreign ministry began to call on his services for several conferences.

Merrick Needham and Associates

In early 1986, Needham felt it was time to go on his own, to offer his services in professional conference organisation, with emphasis on logistics and protocol and including disaster relief, as a private consultant. He put together an operational team comprising some of the people he had worked with from the time of the Newmarket floods, later calling the outfit Merrick Needham and Associates.

The long and impressive list of conferences he worked on included: the 8th Commonwealth Law Conference in 1986; the International Bauxite Symposium in 1986; the 1989 Commonwealth Finance Ministers Meeting; the International Conference of Free Trade Unions which brought 2,391 delegates to Jamaica in 1992; the Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference (CHIC) in 1993; and the West Indies Cricket Board Commemorative Banquet for past and present WI cricketers in 1996.

Honoured by The Queen

In 1990, Needham became the first non-governmental person to co-ordinate a royal visit in connection with the fund-raising visit of HRH Ann, The Princess Royal, the beneficiary being the University of the West Indies. In 1994, he was advisor to Governor-General Sir Howard Cooke, on the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, when he worked alongside Donald Davidson and Rear Admiral Peter Brady. Carlton Scott was Secretary to the GG at the time. For that work, Needham was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order by The Queen.

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