Saying goodbye to rare creatures

 

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Category: Profiles Date: 07 Oct 99


I was the editor’s nightmare this week. I couldn’t do a column. A man who has considered me a daughter the nine years I have known him died.

 

Could they please use a column I’d already written? I asked unreasonably. Then OK, if they couldn’t, I would do one. I sat in front of the typewriter and gazed at this white space and froze. Rang back to say I couldn’t after all. Now I am writing it, still unsure if its too late, but I have to do it.

 

I rapidly went through the gamut of emotion. Shock, denial, anger, raw grief, relief, the emotions were chaotic, ran or froze concurrently.

Relief: he was in no more pain now. He was whole again. No more fear. No more watching that razor-sharp brain being frustrated by an unyielding deteriorating body.

Denial: he hadn’t gone. Here are his books and papers that could be bound into volumes. His ideas have permeated into the region. His voice will always resound.

Anger: why did this perfectionist, this workaholic who (at times to the frustration of his close family and friends) obsessively mulled over huge issues of poverty and social and economic injustices on the dining table, in his study, at weddings, cocktail parties, cricket matches and brisk walks (the only man walking around the Savannah clad in shorts and shirt-jack), in the airplane, while puffing his pipe in the living room, and, of late, on his bed, just shut down?

The voiceless lost a powerful, dedicated voice.

 

The old guard know the stories of how the late Dr Eric Williams made him this country’s first PS in the Ministry of Finance and fired him by television (fax is joke), seconded him off to London to the Commonwealth Secretariat and just as whimsically, two years later on state television, announced he was “recalling this country’s top civil servant to head Niherst forthwith.”

 

We know of his controversial diversification plan for Caroni 1975 Ltd, his Chaconia Medal for service. We know he belonged to the dwindling ranks of pioneers, men such as William Demas, who earned their privileged colonial education with raw tools of hard work and brainpower, and then brought it home to serve. Rampersad was a London School of Economics boy himself  (“of course” I hear him say inimitably).

 

We also know that when the PNM thought him a threat, they dropped him, and the UNC was guarded with him because they thought he was “PNM”. As one civil servant put it, Frank Rampersad’s vision for this country fell between the cracks of partisan politics. He had his share of betrayal and disappointment, but he marched on, chin up.

 

His family and friends, and those who worked with him at the Ministry of Finance, in Caroni, in BWIA, in UWI, in NIHERST, knew his foibles well. If he was autocratic, judgmental, arrogant even, unwilling to make the smallest of small talk, hung up the phone as soon as he’d finished saying what he had to say, it was because he didn’t, couldn’t waste time. If he didn’t say “good morning” it was because even while walking to the car he was pushing himself, analysing, looking for solutions.

 

He’s lived the good life too. Had, in his time, cocktails with Her Majesty the Queen, Prime Ministers and Presidents, but even if you didn’t agree with him, you had to respect him for his integrity because he never swayed or compromised with politicians or foreign companies (even at the expense of his career), and he worked damn hard for the grassroots people of our region.

 

He was a rare creature, a man with integrity. He knew first-hand that poverty was no excuse. He rose out of the bowels of it himself. Worked on the land, and at times went hungry to school. There was a time when he and his orphaned brothers were unable to collect their school prizes because they did not wear shoes so the teacher gave someone else their prizes.

 

When they were 12-year-old schoolboys, Dr Courtenay Bartholomew often took off his blazer and lent it to Frank Rampersad to accept his prizes on the stage at St Mary’s College. After gaining his scholarship to England, he returned to personally tutor his brothers in higher education. His gut experience was that education was the saviour and he carried that torch throughout his life.

 

He didn’t see race or gender. But once he spotted the spark of potential in young people, he became the taskmaster. He took it upon himself to push his dozens of adopted sons and daughters who, because of him, have studied, gone to university, excelled in professions, made something of their lives.

 

We’ve all known people like that - fathers, principles, mothers, bosses and teachers. We don’t miss them right away. There is a kind of relief, a letting go from that barometer which kept rising every time you were nearly there. But the big void is already advancing.

 

At 69, he was ahead of his times. He skipped the age of macho, insecure chauvinism entirely. He saw women as people with potential first, women second. But he also respected womanly qualities: conciliatory, intuitive, communicative, nurturing, natural administrators.

 

He didn’t think we should keep our place, stay in the home, not be too educated. He was so strong that he wasn’t afraid of our potential. He believed in us. He would needle me, pretending to sound chauvinist but proud of how far we’ve come. “All you women taking over the world you know.” I would rise to the bait, argue with him, cite tired statistics of how much farther we had to go, how we still didn’t get equal pay for equal work, how housework wasn’t slotted into the GDP, how domestic violence was on the rise... He would calmly cut me off: “You had better write about the marginalisation of the male you know. Women are outdoing men in almost every sphere in UWI, in primary schools. All you better take care of the young male. Women may not hold top positions today, but in 40 years they will rule and then the real backlash will come.”

 

The wheel comes full circle. Why am I writing this now? Because I remember, with an ache lodged somewhere between the heart and the throat, how in those last few months he wrote a ten thousand-word article on globalisation for a highly reputable international magazine which will be published next spring. His mind never succumbed to his weakening body. He saw in his mind’s eye, 3,000 words ahead. Ailing and in his bed, he would dictate a textbook paragraph with a footnote without pause, and do it again if you got lost. The tone was precise, but every word he wrote underscored his life work which was about balancing the scales, giving a voice to the vulnerable people, nations and continents of the world. He was deeply concerned that the “top 20 per cent of the world’s population was, in the middle of the 1990s, receiving almost 90 per cent of the total world income” and that this imbalance would have far reaching social consequences.

 

At least 10 of us, his wife Sheila, sons Virun and Vikarana, daughter-in-law Wanda, nieces, adopted daughters and sons, secretaries typed and retyped his edited copy till he was satisfied that it was good enough to send off. And when he didn’t want to bother anyone, he wrote himself until his hands cramped and froze on the pen.

 

You only know half of Frank Rampersad until you meet his wife, Sheila Bisoondath, the girl he loved since she was 11, courted while they did their respective degrees in London and married in August 1957. Married 42 years, they were twin souls, were best friends: a ‘90s couple with old-fashioned values when it counted. Frank had to keep up with Sheila with her photographic memory, quick wit and sharp mind. She challenged him intellectually, backed him professionally, developed her talents as artist and teacher. She is strong. She was the force behind him, the micro-humanitarian, giving him the platform from which he would serve this country. In these last difficult years of his illness, she gave new meaning to every marriage vow in every religion as tireless nurse, manager, secretary, friend, wife. His angel.

 

Ultimately, out of everything that made up the economist Frank Rampersad, the solid intellect and charm (someone once mistook him for Omar Sharif at the airport - that once powerful physique, that classically chiselled face), there is that barometer reaching beyond excellence. Not for self-promotion, but towards humanitarian goals that our country, our region, the Commonwealth has had, and lost, until we catch ourselves. And remember.

 

I can hear you this Thursday, Mr Rampersad, saying:

“You embarrass me man but never succumb, not to betrayal, grief, illness, even death. There is work to be done.”

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur