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“I take this opportunity to appeal to my university colleagues to double their efforts, work harder than many of us admittedly now tend to do, to bring to our students (the next generation) the caring and compassion which a true centre of learning must afford its wards, and foster the sense and sensibility that will have the region fully prepared to engage the globalised challenges no one of us can handle on one’s own.”
–Professor Emeritus Rex Nettleford
Although he was christened Ralston, it is no surprise that the world came to call him Rex—the king—seeing in his regal bearing and outlook that this man was never destined to anything but leadership at the most profound level. As tributes poured in at the news of his passing earlier this month, the range of adjectives and titles bestowed upon him was so expansive that if a Caribbean person had never (unforgivably) heard of him, it would have seemed that there had been many Rex Nettlefords in our midst. The titles vied to fully express his stature—Quintessential Caribbean Man, Renaissance Man, Maximum Son, Cultural Luminary, Cultural Icon—and though they were varied, they settled on one point of commonality: the superlative. For that was the only way to measure the extraordinary creature who graced us for 77 years: The University of the West Indies’ former Vice Chancellor Emeritus, the late Professor the Honourable Ralston ‘Rex’ Nettleford.
Though records are rife with venerations for him and his work, none speak so eloquently as his own words.
On Friday 29th April, 2009, Professor Nettleford received the Chancellor’s Award from The UWI, at the St Augustine Campus, and he expressed the sentiment that ruled his life’s work.
He believed that The UWI was responsible for the growth and development of the Caribbean region, “for,” he stressed, “a university is not a trade school. The preparation to make a living is paramount. But no less so is the preparation for life … Study and experience have taught us that development begins with people, with a release of the creative potential in an individual or society.”
Professor Nettleford’s writings, speeches and interviews show that his main concern was with the development of the Caribbean by educating its youth, particularly through fostering creativity.
He understood the Caribbean’s value and stressed that, as a people, we should abandon feelings of hostility stemming from slavery and colonialism, embrace the culture that it has brought us and show the world the great entity that we have become in spite of our historical struggles.
“We have actually learned to live together, rather than live side by side,” he said in an interview with Gayelle The Channel’s Judith Laird, in 2009, when he visited Trinidad and Tobago to take part in the Commonwealth People’s Forum. “We are part African, part European, part Asian, part Native American but totally Caribbean … I think that this is a challenging locale for the Commonwealth Heads of Government to see how people can live peacefully.” Thus, the typical West Indian, he said “is a textured animal, which is what the global world must be about in the 21st century.”
He believed that the key to demonstrating the Caribbean’s worth to the world, was in the region’s youth and education and his 50-year commitment to The UWI, is that testament. A teacher first, Professor Nettleford never relinquished this post as he ascended the academic hierarchy to become Vice Chancellor of The UWI. Always committed to students, he sought to nurture creativity and show them the compassion he felt necessary to foster a stimulating learning environment.
In a 2006 interview with David Scott, Editor of the Caribbean journal Small Axe, he warned against his “beloved UWI,” becoming “a degree factory” which simply graduated students without offering them a space where “learning is treasured, where in fact, free discourse is encouraged.” “This place should be preparing its graduates to cope with the texture and diversity of human existence,” he said.
At the Chancellor’s Award, he continued in this vein, saying that “the real resources of our regional university lie in the people who teach, conduct research and reach out to the wider society which it was set up to serve.”
He urged fellow professors to “double their efforts, work harder than many of us admittedly now tend to do, to bring to our students (the next generation) the caring and compassion which a true centre of learning must afford its wards, and foster the sense and sensibility that will have the region fully prepared to engage the globalised challenges no one of us can handle on one’s own.”
Remaining true to his word, Professor Nettleford continued his labour of love for his beloved UWI until his dying day, spending his last hours in service to the University as he prepared to leave Washington, DC, to attend its fund-raising gala in New York. Those who know him believe it is the way he would have wanted to go.
Long live his memory.