Business titan Ralph Smith laid to restThursday, March 04, 2021
It is commonplace in America, when recounting the meteoric rise of individuals from a working class or disadvantaged background, for this phrase to be used: “This could only happen in America.” But I have news for the Americans, and for doubting Jamaicans too, who feel this country has no opportunity to offer. Jamaica has had more than a few instances when the unparalleled and inexplicable success of its sons and daughters evoke that same exclamation: “This could only happen in Jamaica.”
In just the space of a few weeks, here in little Jamaica we have experienced the passing of three world-class titans of business from shipping, tourism and transportation. Harry Maragh, chairman and chief executive officer of Lannaman & Morris Group of Companies, who was 71, died on January 3, 2021. Gordon “Butch” Stewart, the doyen of tourism as well as funder and chairman of Sandals Resorts International and the ATL Group of Companies of which the Jamaica Observer is a part, died on January 4, 2021 at age 79. Ralph Smith, the iconic figure from the hills of St James and Montego Bay, the one most unlikely to succeed given his humble beginnings and pigmentation, who climbed to the pinnacle of transportation mainly in the allied tourism sector, said his farewell on January 29, 2021. He was 85.
To grasp the enormity of Smith's climb from the nondescript village of Flagstaff, nestled above Maroon Town high in the hills of southern St James, to the pre-eminent position among the business class of Montego Bay, Jamaica, and the Caribbean, one needs context. His father was the venerable Alfred R Smith, who in the 1940s and 50s — along with my father, Rev Dr Cyril Arthur Morgan — ruled the roost in People's National Party (PNP) politics in St James Southern. A R, as he was affectionately called, was elected a PNP councillor and, in a deft political move, switched party loyalty to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and served a second term as mayor of Montego Bay representing the Maroon Town Division.
A R was himself a pioneer in rural transportation. At a time when poor country folk depended on beasts of burden to carry mostly agricultural produce to towns and parish capitals, returning with wares to stock the shelves of shops, the elder Smith invested in a bus, Busy Bee, to transport the commuting public and a couple of trucks for farmers and market people to transport their produce — whether cane, banana, milk, or whatever. One of my earliest childhood recollections is hearing the Commer truck straining up the hill in the wee hours of the morning, stopping every few yards to pick up the bungle of produce or milk cans from each farmer along the way. I also remember hearing talk of a young Ralph, the son of A R — probably too young to have a licence to operate a truck — being the driver.
One morning, awakened by the clattering sound of the truck's diesel engine, I jumped out of bed, pressed my face up against the windowpane, and was rewarded with the unforgettable sight of a mere boy, Ralph, with half his body protruding from the open door of the truck as if he could not see above the dashboard, skilfully navigating the vehicle along the narrow stone road.
How could anyone know that, in the years to come, this boy doing a man's job would rise to become the pioneer of modern ground transportation for the tourism sector in his country of birth Jamaica, and extending to Cayman? Tropical Tours, which he founded and nurtured over almost a half-century, not only modernised rolling stock in the tourism industry by introducing air-conditioned luxury coaches, but also made direct linkages with international tour companies to transport their arriving and departing passengers in Jamaica, thereby expanding into a fully integrated transportation and destination management company.
For a man that was not educated beyond Maldon Primary School, Ralph's exploits in business, measured by his many annual awards from the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), Lifetime Achievement Award from the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Order of Distinction (Commander Class) from the Government of Jamaica, is unsurpassed. The many accolades paid him on his passing are testament to the fact that, yes, he has left us, but he has also left a legacy.
Former Prime Minister P J Patterson, in paying tribute to Ralph, said he has left a legacy and will be a hard act to follow. In his tribute, former Prime Minister Bruce Golding highlighted his pioneering spirit, which caused him to take the plunge in an area of business at a time when others with deeper pockets and greater clout were afraid to invest. Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett referred to him as a brilliant businessman whose passion for tourism and transportation is unmatched. Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Janet Silvera crowned him “one of the most accomplished business leaders and philanthropists in western Jamaica”. In a comment to the Jamaica Observer newspaper, she is quoted saying, “The contribution that he made to the development of Jamaica's tourism transportation sector is unsurpassed and unequalled.”
Running through all the tributes is Ralph Smith's caring and giving disposition. Where did this concern for his fellow man come from? Lloyd, Ralph's younger brother by 11 months, tells of their father's stern instruction to them back in the days when they would transport passengers and market people. If anyone could not pay the fare they should carry then anyway until they could pay. This is the hallmark of a social entrepreneur who is being heralded today.
Then there is Joy, Ralph's lifetime partner and I am sure he would say his wisest investment ever. Joy was a student at the now-defunct Branch Texas College at Maldon, founded by my late father. Imagine that. A tertiary education institution in a deep rural community dedicated to educating the children of poor peasants. Fifty, 60 years ago there was promising rural development that produced success stories. Driving the route from Montego Bay into the surrounding hills to which Ralph, and his father before him, brought modern transportation, is a sad reflection on the leadership in the years following.
Harking back to his youthful days when he traversed the hills of St James in his father's truck, Ralph Robert Smith, “the transporter”, as he became known, is best memorialised by the poetic words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”
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