There was an oasis of calm and comfort last Thursday as we listened to Professor Hermi Hewitt, Audrey Stewart-Hinchcliffe, Professor J Peter Figuero, and Parris Lyew Ayee Sr. These Jamaican nationalists reminded us of the courage, excellence, and integrity infused in our Jamaican DNA. The four stalwarts were honoured at the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP) Annual Living Legacy Awards Ceremony held last Thursday at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel. They held the audience's attention as they each stood up to reply.
The Accomplished Professor Hermi Hewitt
Prof Hewitt, whose journey in nursing education was marked by academic excellence, was the first non-American nurse to be inducted into the American Academy of Nursing as one of the academy's new fellows for 2009. Professor Hewitt's book Trailblazers in Nursing Education: A Caribbean Perspective is considered regionally and internationally as the reference standard on Caribbean nursing history.
After receiving the award — named for nursing legend Syringa Marshall-Burnett — Prof Hewitt thanked her colleague – herself a living legend — honouree Merel Hanson who nominated her for the award.
“I accept this CCRP award on behalf of all those who contributed to my growth and development in my nursing and midwifery career over these 57 years. It would be remiss of me not to mention some such outstanding nurses — [the late] Mrs Enid Lawrence, Miss Cislyn Lambert, Mrs Laurice Hunter-Scott, Dr Mary Jane Seivwright, and Mrs Syringa Marshall-Burnett… Finally, I accept this award on behalf of my husband [Errol] of 54 years and my entire family that have been my support in all that I have accomplished.”
The Bold Audrey Stewart-Hinchcliffe
A former hospital administrator in the US and health consultant to Caricom, the trailblazing entrepreneur and author Audrey Stewart-Hinchcliffe noted after receiving her award: “When I return to Jamaica after living and working overseas for over 24 years, I had to make a living as I wanted to contribute to the economic and social life of this country. How to achieve this was the big question. Originally I was a little country girl from the yam belt in the parish of Trelawny. I knew I wanted to make a positive impact… the first order of business was to find gainful employment so I began to search for a job, but nothing was forthcoming as they said I was overqualified.”
She continued, “What came instead was the opportunity to start a business and Caribbean Health Management Consultancy was formed, and is still very active… then came Manpower Maintenance Services Limited (MMSL) and as they say, the rest is history.” She paid tribute to J A Lester Spaulding, her colleague in entrepreneurial activities, who was also a founding board director of CCRP, for whom her award is named.
I remember after the visit of then British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Office of the Prime Minister, Stewart-Hinchcliffe said he remarked on the spotless facilities and said he wished he could get MMSL to work for him at 10 Downing Street.
When people with HIV-AIDS were shunned by some companies, Stewart-Hinchcliffe stood up for them, and by offering them employment she motivated other companies to follow suit. Audrey Stewart-Hinchcliffe has received too many accolades to count, including being invited by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to serve a two-year term as a member of the newly established International Council on Women's Business Leadership to offer advice to the US State Department on the formulation of strategies and policies to empower women for global economic prosperity.
The bold and witty Audrey Stewart-Hinchcliffe declared, “I am a young 82.” She said she had no immediate plans to retire – she continues to run MMSL, is writing a second book, and continues to give public service wherever she is needed.
The Compassionate Professor Peter Figueroa
Professor Peter Figueroa, who has had a 40-year career in public health, was the founder of the Junior Doctors' Association (later renamed the Jamaica Medical Doctors' Association). The compassionate doctor was one of the first clinicians to treat HIV-AIDS patients and led the response to HIV. He has been a member of the UNAIDS scientific expert panel since 2014.
He was also a founding member of the Caribbean Public Health Association and the Caribbean College of Family Practitioners. Among his many awards, in 2019, at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, he was recognised as a World Health Leader by the World Health Organization. As Professor of public health, epidemiology and HIV/AIDS at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, he has led the development of a doctor of public health (DrPH) programme.
In his acceptance, Prof Figueroa expressed thanks to his family, “especially my wife and three children”. He quipped, “My wife knows my strengths and weaknesses, so she tells me to dress properly.” He paid tribute to his friends and colleagues, “All the persons at the Ministry of Health, and I mean all – I used to learn from my driver when he was taking me to the airport.”
He also thanked the helpers who have worked at the family home: “We've had some very gifted helpers, I can tell you. They also help both myself and my wife to contribute more and I want to recognise them.”
He congratulated CCRP on its mission, but in remarking on the wealth of experience of his fellow honourees and seniors said, “You need to call on our seniors also to play a special role in empowering our younger generations who are coming after us so that we can really empower them, support them, and let them blossom and to fulfil their potential. Too often persons with great potential, whether young or old, are not called on to take responsibility and do what they can do to make a difference. We should always be seeking to empower others because it is in the interest of all.”
The trailblazer Parris Lyew Ayee Sr
Parris Lyew Ayee Sr grew up in a poor family and started his education at Trench Town Primary School. The diligent young Lyew Ayee scored scholarships to Excelsior High School and later The UWI, where he developed a fascination for bauxite and other minerals.
“There are three elements that make successful civilizations,” he told us at the event, “water, land and minerals.”
He is a foundation member of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute and his brilliance in the field took him to Venezuela, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Suriname, China, and Guyana, where he assisted those countries to establish their bauxite and mineral operations. “I was a very early environmentalist,” he said, “but a practical environmentalist.”
When he was honoured by the International Committee for Studies of Bauxite, Alumina, and Aluminium (ICOSBA) with the committee's gold medal in 1997, he recalled being stopped as he walked back down the aisle by several people, asking, “How come you Jamaicans are so good?” “This is why I say,” says Parris Lyew Ayee Sr, “we don't realise how good we are.”
He says we need to value our retirees: “People used to say, 'Parris — you love old people!' I always had a mixture of grey hairs on my team because you can't buy experience… I think that there are so many retired, experienced people around who are sitting by, forgotten, and not realising that they are treasures that we need to pull on.”
“They can help guide our young people and politicians what to do,” he chuckled, “because now they can't fire them.”
Parris was grateful for all the people who have contributed to his rich life, “but most of all, my wife and my boys”, he says.
The CMO Dr Bisasor-McKenzie and DSP Palmer-Mair
Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, Jamaica's chief medical officer and Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Natalie Palmer-Mair, staff officer to the assistant commissioner of police, Community Safety and Security Branch received Special Awards of Appreciation at the event. Dr Bisasor-McKenzie was recognised for her “calm authority and composure throughout the pandemic, giving a sense of assurance to Jamaicans in the midst of the health crisis”. DSP Palmer-Mair was awarded for rallying Jamaica Constabulary Force officers to assist in the distribution of CCRP care packages to needy seniors islandwide.
As we reflect on these extraordinary Jamaicans, let us hope more Jamaicans will realise how good we really can be, and step up to join these nation-builders.