St. John’s Antigua- The nation mourned yesterday as word spread of the death of national treasure, Dame Gwendolyn Tonge.
Just five days before her 89th birthday, “Aunty Gwen” passed on at her Campsite residence at about 7:30 am. Since then, the airwaves have been flooded with people offering condolences and anecdotal accounts reminiscing on the life and times that were Auntie Gwen.
Throughout her remarkable life and career, “Auntie Gwen” touched the lives of hundreds of Antiguans and Barbudans—whether through her work as a home economics teacher, former senator or champion for gender equality at the Women’s Desk.
Relatives and friends gathered at the family home yesterday not to mourn, what one family member called a “great loss,” but to celebrate her life.
Her daughter, Erna-Mae Braithwaite, said she understood that this time of mourning is not merely for her family, but also for the nation.
“Mommy lived a good and fruitful life and she has left a legacy for all of us…We know how much Mommy meant to the people of Antigua & Barbuda,” Braithwaite said.
Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer received the new with “deep sadness”, saying in a press release, “Auntie Gwen’s contributions to the development of families and Antigua & Barbuda are immeasurable.”
He added, “Her work as an educator and director of Gender Affairs improved the lives of many and made her a household name. Her love and passion for people and for the nation were highly demonstrated in her work…Dame Gwendolyn Tonge will always remain one of Antigua & Barbuda’s brightest and patriotic daughters.”
Leader of the Antigua Labour Party, Lester Bird, paused to reminisce about his experiences with her, saying, “Auntie Gwen was a cultural icon.
“Antigua is worse off because she has gone…Let her be an example of what is best and can be best in this nation. Accordingly, we should in fact celebrate her life and recognise that her contribution is absolutely outstanding,” Bird said.
Upon hearing of the death, family member and President of the Professional Organization for Women in Antigua & Barbuda, D Gisele Isaac, called “Aunty Gwen” a “trailblazer” for women’s causes.
“In terms of her activism for women, she was way ahead of her time…Her achievements were really remarkable, because as a woman of her generation… to have achieved as much as she did, in the times that she did it, and at the front of the vanguard, not in the middle of it as a beneficiary, but blazing a trail, I thought she was really remarkable,” Isaac said.
Dame Gwen pioneered the Woman’s Desk which is the precursor to what is now the Directorate of Gender Affairs. In a communiqué yesterday, minister responsible for the directorate, Dr Jacqui Quinn Leandro said as a child, she emulated “Auntie Gwen.”
“She made an impact on me then and helped shape me as a professional woman. As important and influential as she was, Dame Gwen- serving in the Senate- being the head of the Woman’s Desk, she was never distant; was always approachable and relatable. She didn’t appear to take herself too seriously and was forever full of encouragement and kisses whenever we met,” Dr Quinn Leandro said.
Dame Gwendolyn will not only be remembered for her civic service, but equally for hosting the longest running television show in Antigua & Barbuda, “Cooking Magic”.
For over forty years, Antiguans and Barbudans grew up watching the show that Auntie Gwen hosted. “Cooking Magic” was more than just a culinary arts programme, but also gave lessons in life, economising, and culture.
The television show spurred two editions of a book by the same name.
In 2006, Dame Gwendolyn received the Most Distinguished Order of the Nation (DCN) for services to education and the community.
Dame Gwen leaves to mourn her passing daughters: Erna-Mae Brathwaite, Euline Robin, sons, Eustace, Hesketh, Roger and stepson, Teddy Tonge as well as her sisters and numerous relatives.
As Dame Gwen was a former senator, it is expected that she will be afforded an official funeral – highest possible send-off befitting her status.
Planning will begin when Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer returns.