Oliver Clarke: Awesome power masked by rare, enduring humility

Oliver Clarke: Awesome power masked by rare, enduring humility

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

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A reprint of the Desmond Allen Interviews published in the Sunday Observer in 2005. Allen, the founding editor of the Jamaica Observer and award-winning journalist, was at The Gleaner when Clarke arrived in 1976. Clarke died last Saturday after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

 

When the time comes to write the history of post-independent Jamaica, what will men say is Oliver Clarke's best, most lasting contribution to the social and economic construct of a nation fabricated on the notion 'Out of many, one people'? Will they remember him first for his uncanny leadership of the Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS), the largest financial conglomerate of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean? Or will they hail him as the guardian of free speech at the helm of a newspaper that has existed longer than any Jamaican alive and by which journalistic standards have been set for well over a century and a half?

In a manner of speaking, Oliver Clarke is a latecomer to the corridors of power, even with his antecedents in a fading colonial past. He was to the manor born, make no mistake about it. But in the way men have wielded power over the destiny of this fair isle, he was never a contender until the mid-1970s when his genius exploded on the national stage.

From a little-known Westmoreland village called Amity, about eight miles from Savanna-la-Mar, the capital, has come a man for the times. Never flaunting his considerable affluence or extraordinary influence, Oliver Clarke speaks, quietly, and men hasten to do his bidding. No far-reaching decision about the country's future is contemplated without reference, one way or another, to him, or the newspaper he heads. It is an awesome power masked by a rare and enduring humility that has set him apart among men of his stature.

His journey from Amity was by way of England where he studied among people of extraordinary genius and sporting prowess. He would have to overcome the guilt complex of being born to the white plantocracy in a land where excruciating poverty stalked the common, mostly black people. When he migrated from country to Kingston, the capital in 1974, Clarke personally knew very few of the people that ran Jamaica, but it didn't take long for everyone who mattered to know him.

The cosmic plot thickened when Leslie Ashenheim invited him to take over the running of The Gleaner, an institution that Jamaicans shamelessly equate with newspapers anywhere in the world. Not even he could imagine the role he would play in the script that would be written, as if by fate itself. Nor is Clarke likely, any time soon, if ever, to forget the dramatic predawn phone calls from an irate Michael Manley about the newspaper's unfavourable coverage of a story, or the march on The Gleaner that the prime minister led to the chant “Next time! Next time!” It was a time of great fear and trepidation but it grew him up fast.

Then there would be the onerous task of selling off the bankrupt, State-owned hotels in the 1980s which would Jamaicanise the hotel sector, touching the lives of people like Gordon “Butch” Stewart and John Issa, two of today's giants of tourism; and the chairmanship of the humongous but ailing National Commercial Bank in the financially cruel 90s. As natural leader among his counterparts in the Caribbean, he would join the larger struggle for press freedom as president of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).

 

The eccentric Rev Henry Clarke

 

It is not, by any means, cliché to describe Oliver Clarke as a man for the people in the way he has lived his life. That would not surprise anyone who knows the Clarke family history, or specifically of his great-grandfather the Rev Henry Clarke, who championed the cause of the ex-slaves. When Rev Clarke came to Jamaica from England to teach at the then Manning's Free School in Savanna-la-Mar in 1847, the island still bore the fresh marks of slavery which had been abolished a mere nine years before. An eccentric man and a failed inventor, Rev Clarke became a member of the Legislative Council and fought many bruising battles on behalf of the poor, black Jamaicans before he founded what is now known as Jamaica National Building Society to promote thrift and help them own homes.

Rev Clarke's grandson, Eric Hugh Clarke, a large cattle farmer who took over the running of the building society then called the Westmoreland Building Society was the father of the man we know as Oliver Frederick Clarke. Oliver's mother was Zena Clarke nee Whitelocke. She was Eric Clarke's second wife and a community activist of note who lived at Mint near Grange Hill in the parish. One of Oliver's aunts was the famous Edith Clarke whose anthropological study, the first in Jamaica at the time, produced the seminal and oft-quoted work My Mother Who Fathered Me.

Oliver was born on October 19, 1944, the second of two children. His sibling was Anthony Clarke.

The Clarke family chronicles suggest that life would have been much easier for the Clarkes had they not lived in so isolated and inaccessible a place as Savanna-la-Mar. “The town was separated from what Jamaica had to offer by way of social and intellectual life by distance, poor roads, dangerous river crossings, mountainous rides or risky sea voyages. This physical isolation determined their severely restricted social life.” But the world had grown much closer to Westmoreland by the time Oliver Clarke was born.

 

Oliver's twist

 

There was a strange twist to Oliver's birth at Nuttall Memorial Hospital in Kingston. For almost three decades his great-grandfather had railed against the Anglican Bishop Nuttall after whom the hospital was named. When Nuttall first arrived in Jamaica in 1880, Rev Henry Clarke described him as “unjust and untruthful”. But that was eons ago, and Eric and Zena Clarke were now living at Amity, a delightful little village. Oliver remembers that he swam and caught fish in a stream that coursed lazily through the gardens, and he liked to pump water from the river to an elevated tank at his home. “Our house was one of the first to get telephones and people use to come from far to use the phone,” he recalls.

A “Delco” generator supplied electricity to the house and the memories are also made of citrus orchards and big breadfruit trees. Oliver was quite taken with his air rifle and would regularly get up at dawn to go shooting. He and his brother, Tony, who was 2 ½ years older, used to play with a big toy train set. They went horseback riding a lot on the vast tracts of Clarke land. Zena Clarke taught her son the basics of reading and writing. Oliver learnt to add by playing a card game called Canasta. “I loved to keep score and the only way I could do that was to be able to add,” he says. First signs, perhaps, of the future accountant.

At about age six, he was sent to board at a preparatory school at Mount Olivet, remembering that the school was in the middle of a cow pasture at Malvern in neighbouring St Elizabeth. “My most vivid memories are of a big pit latrine. I was always terrified of falling in.”

From there, he went to deCarteret school in Mandeville where he also boarded and he enjoyed the time there, recalling that students came from places like Colombia and Venezuela to learn English and benefit from the high-quality education. The headmaster was the Rev Reginald Morton-York who was followed by a Mr Allen, an Englishman.

 

Oliver the actor

 

At deCarteret, he got interested in a side of him that is little known today acting and appeared in several school plays. One of his schoolmasters influenced his interest in meteorology and things like wind speeds, cloud types and rainfall. He didn't attach any great significance to those activities but the daily practice of logging the measurements taught Oliver the discipline of keeping a log and updating it everyday, crucial now for the busy tempo of life today. He wasn't very good at sports but made the school's shooting team. Schoolmates he remembers include William “Billy” McConnell, Monty Alexander, David Seivwright, Robert Lake, Robert Sutton and his cousin Roger Whitelocke.

When he was 11, Oliver's parents asked him whether he would like to join his brother who was studying in England and he said 'yes'. They chose Millfield Prep School in Sommerset which had a brilliant headmaster named Jack Meyer. The school had a strange mix of students: “On one hand, a collection of ordinary fee-paying students, like me, and a bunch of academic geniuses and unbelievably talented athletes.”

Oliver remembers that after his entrance interview, Meyer had caused his mother to weep by saying that he couldn't be accepted because he was mentally challenged. On Meyer's suggestion, Oliver was tested by a psychologist who found no such challenge. Meyer then conceded that he meant that Oliver could not speak English!

Millfield Prep was known for having 11 year olds who sat A' level exams and Oliver found the environment stimulating. His interest in the arts developed and he continued to act in school plays. He made good friends there, particularly with some students from Hong Kong and Brunei. At the adjoining Millfield Senior School were other Jamaicans like Billy McConnell, the deLissers and Basil Cusack, among others.

“The school got my mind going,” Clarke says now. “One of the things I learnt was that there would be people who were infinitely brighter and vastly more athletic than me, but also that I could learn from them and that I could learn more by reading and study.”

Just before his 14th birthday, he moved on to Sherborne School where he did O' and A' levels in the sciences. He played a bit of tennis, rugby, and 'fives' which is not well known here. He liked it there and made good friends, regarding Mike Bridger who is now an ear nose and throat consultant at Plymouth as his best friend then.

When Clarke turned 18 he took a year off from school, went by boat to New York, and hitchhiked to Miami, Florida. At the end of the odyssey the young man returned to Jamaica and worked as a teller in Westmoreland Building Society founded by his great-grandfather and now run by his father. There were two branch offices at Santa Cruz, in St Elizabeth and Mandeville, and also a small unit operating out of the legal office of Judah Desnoes in Kingston.

From there it was back to England, to London School of Economics (LSE) where he gained a lower second class honours degree in economics, specialising in accounting and computing. This was 1962. LSE, known for producing many world leaders including Jamaica's Michael Manley, afforded Clarke a renaissance of sorts. He became a member and later treasurer of Caribbean Artists Movement, a large grouping of writers, painters and intellectuals, led by Edward, now Kamau Braithwaite, who Clarke remembers as a kind of father figure to the group. Some of the recognisable members included John Hearne, CLR James and Andrew Salkey.

“It was an enormously educational experience in which, for the first time, I was meeting so many bright and talented Caribbean people,” Clarke reflects. “Up to that time I had lived a pretty secluded life in Westmoreland and it was a very enriching experience for me to be hearing from people of the Caribbean.” Clarke was also greatly impressed by the intellect of other Jamaicans at LSE like Norman Girvan and Orlando Patterson.

 

Black power meeting

Near the time to return to Jamaica, he had a startling revelation that his education had not taught him much about his country. Setting out on an intellectual journey, and a search for identity, Clarke started attending semi-black power meetings. The question that haunted his mind was what future awaited him in a country that had a peculiar colour problem.

“I realised that colour in Jamaica had a very funny meaning. It was partly colonial and anti-establishment but there was also the perception that the white people had not paid their dues to get Jamaica going. If you were white, as a young person you could easily get hung up on a guilt trip and it was very important me for me to get over my guilt trip.”

Clarke left LSE and was articled to the accounting firm Touche Ross in London, where he worked for three years and qualified as a chartered accountant. During that time he developed an increasing interest in law and started attending the dinners and other procedures at the famous Lincoln's Inn, but never finished. His father wanted to retire and told him it was time to come home.

In 1970 a decision had been taken to merge Westmoreland Building Society and St James Benefit Building Society. Both were mutual companies with total assets of $7 million each. They were joined soon after by the St Ann and Brown's Town societies, the first time in the world that four building societies were being merged, Clarke says. The new entity was called Jamaica National Building Society (today's Jamaica National Bank).

Back on Jamaican soil, he started out as assistant manager at the Westmoreland Building Society office at Savanna-la-Mar, a position vacated by his brother, Tony, who had decided to become a farmer. The building society was then being run by Osmond Hudson, Clarke's first boss. The Montego Bay, St James office was headed by Billy Hoyte and with the likes of Custos Walter Fletcher on the board; in St Ann it was headed by Len Jacobs at St Ann's Bay and George Barrow at Brown's Town. Trevor Donaldson and Neilson Davidson were directors.

It was a fascinating time for Clarke. “I found it was one thing learning accountancy but quite another practising it. I was overwhelmed by it and would regularly stay up well past midnight going at it,” he recounts. He introduced the first computerised ledger cards and helped to design the programme, drawing on his course at LSE.

The job allowed him to travel Jamaica for the first time, promoting the idea of thrift and home-owning. This was before the advent of the National Housing Trust. He loved it, recalling that he spent some time in Brown's Town. He also remembers his first managers' meeting in Ocho Rios. “We took the very daring step of inviting the revered Bank of Jamaica governor, G Arthur Brown, to address us.”

It soon became apparent that it was going to be difficult to manage the growth of JNBS from Savanna-la-Mar and the decision was taken, reluctantly Clarke adds, to relocate its headquarters to Kingston. Clarke identified a building at Grenada Crescent in New Kingston and that became the new head office. Today it is the New Kingston branch. He remembers the tension surrounding the relocation exercise, when the all-important title documents were sent by armoured truck to Kingston as a manager trailed the vehicle all the way. Jamaica School of Arts' Jerry Craig painted the mural. The guest speaker was no less than Governor General Sir Clifford Campbell.

 

Lanny Reynolds

 

In 1974 Osmond Hudson decided to go live abroad and Clarke suddenly found himself the new boss at JNBS. Over the next two years, as the society grew in numbers of shareholders, assets and branches and profits Clarke began to feel the need for something more challenging. “I felt it would be fun to take on a company that had financial and human relations problems,” he says. It would come in the form of the Gleaner Company. But first, he had to find a successor. The man he found was Lanny Reynolds, who had also worked at Touche Ross London before joining JNBS some years earlier as financial controller. Reynolds was good, very good. And Clarke could now leave.

About the same time that Clarke was weighing his options and itching to find something that would test his true mettle, Leslie Ashenheim, chairman of the Gleaner Company, was looking for a managing director to succeed Tom Sherman. The Gleaner newspaper had been in his family for more than a century and had grown in importance with each generation of Jamaicans. Wherever they migrated to, particularly America, Canada, and Britain, these Jamaicans had this way of irritating newspaper vendors by asking for a “Gleaner” when they really meant the local paper! The Gleaner had become a Jamaican institution. Moreover, the company was facing hard financial times and Ashenheim was looking for a special man to take over. Oliver Clarke was his man. This was 1976.

Clarke' s decision to take the helm of The Gleaner might have pleased his great-grandfather, Rev Henry Clarke. In the days he fought the establishment to improve the dreadfully miserable conditions of the masses, Henry Clarke had often found The Gleaner one of his few supporters, particularly for his lifelong campaign against illegitimacy or 'bastardy' as it was popularly called. When the Legislative Council laughed down his ideas about illegitimacy, the newspaper wrote in his defence: “…It was the laughter of a few men who did not know moral courage when they saw it and who, evidently, could not respect grey hairs…”

When Henry Clarke died in 1907, 37 years before Oliver's birth, The Gleaner eulogised him thus: “All of his life, he has stood a solitary, earnest, sincere figure, caring little what was thought of him, possessed of a few ideas and a great determination, and going on with his self-imposed tasks with grim courage and unswerving perseverance…”

Now, in 1976, if Oliver Clarke was looking for a challenge, he had truly found one.

 

State of Emergency

 

The Gleaner was often beset by industrial problems and wage strikes had become almost an annual event. But more importantly, the paper had taken on the role of an opposition to Manley's democratic socialist People's National Party (PNP) Government. These were perilous times. A fierce ideological battle had split the country asunder. Men died defending the cause. Many voted with their feet by selling off property and running for the safety of foreign climes.

Clarke took the Gleaner job in April 1976. Three months later, a state of emergency was declared. In short order, a letter reached Clarke's desk on the Gleaner's fifth floor. It was signed by the Competent Authority comprising the head of the police and the army. The letter demanded that the content of the newspaper must henceforth be submitted to the authorities to be vetted before publication. As Clarke read over the letter, he felt a growing lump in his throat and beads of sweat ran down his face. He was now on a collision course with the authorities. And that was only the beginning…

Next: Michael Manley calls at dawn


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