The sad news of the passing of Dame Edris Bird at the age of 91 came as quite a shock to all Antiguans and Barbudans. A pall descended over us, what with the realisation that an iconic lady, indeed a national treasure, had slipped this mortal ken and gone on to her eternal reward. A piece of us died with her. As John Donne so nicely put it, ‘When the bells tolled for her, they tolled for us as well.’
Dame Edris Bird was a matronly soul who cared deeply about education, not only for young people, but for adults. It was for that reason that she threw herself into extra mural and continuing studies for adults at the Extra Mural Department of the University of the West Indies. Ah yes, the University of the West Indies under her leadership was a mecca for education, the arts, cultural expression, and exploration of self-awareness and self-fulfillment. She encouraged theatrical performances (see RULER IN HIROONA and CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN), and nurtured great playwrights and actors like Dorbrene O’Marde, Edson Buntin, Eugene ‘Rats’ Edwards, Irving Lee, Dr. Glen Edwards and the cast of the Harambee Open Air Theatre. Pan blossomed and flourished, as did African drumming and creative and contemporary dancing. Public speaking and debating thrived; poetry and prose performances all found room for expression at the University Centre. It is without fear of contradiction that we declare that the University Centre under Dame Edris Bird was the cultural and educational hub in Antigua and Barbuda. Oh, those were the days!
What an exciting time! It was a radical age when the Black Power Movement and anti-establishment thinking was holding sway. Young people were no longer willing to abide the old conventions and mores, they were dancing to the beat of a different drum, their own drum. Dame Edris encouraged this sort of Black consciousness-thought and Black pride. Even the nascent Rastafari movement found a kindred spirit in Dame Edris. King Franki, a revered elder in the faith, and one of our finest thinkers, remembers her fondly, indeed reverentially. As does Dorbrene O’Marde, outstanding playwright, historian and cultural leader. And not forgetting Mr. Clarvis Joseph, a past student, and another outstanding Antiguan, who says that she (the first female to teach at the Antigua Grammar School (AGS) encouraged and groomed, arguably one of the most radical groups of students ever to walk those sacred halls. We’re talking about the immortal Tim Hector, Alphonsus Derrick, Charlie Ephraim and Clarvis himself, who were among her first set of students after she returned from university circa 1955. (She was an exceptional English teacher) Those students were in the vanguard for African, Antiguan and Black liberation and a smashing of the old colonial icons. She encouraged iconoclasm.
Consider her response to Papa Bird who told her not to bring any more of those “Black Power” young people to the Antigua and Barbuda Broadcasting Service (ABS) station. Dame Edris had arranged for a weekly broadcast of the voices of the youth, and after an enlightening appearance by Mr. Harold Lovell, Miss Jackie Walwyn and Mr. Aubrey Webson (teenage students at the time), he scolded Dr. Bird for giving them too much latitude, and he forbad her from ever bringing them back to the radio station. Needless to say, she ‘told-off’ Papa Bird, and said that if her students could not come with her to air their views, she would not be returning to the programme. She never returned. Such was her determination. Such was her belief in the youth.
And let us not forget her conviction that children need a strong foundation. She founded the Sir Luther Wynter Pre-School and held night classes at the University Centre. She made classrooms available for students (myself included) to study and prepare for the General Certificate of Education exams. She was a kind, gentle and matronly soul, a mother, and one who was always willing to listen and dispense of good advice and knowledge. One of her nieces, Attorney Patricia Forde, her voice quivering with emotion, recalls her aunt as a loving and great motivator. According to Patricia, “She always insisted that one was never to old to try something new, to broaden one’s horizons. She always asked what she could do to help. Aunt Edris lost two brothers recently, and after that, she sort-of went down. She will be sorely missed.” Indeed! The hundreds of students whom she encouraged to go on to tertiary education, concur.
Shakespeare once said that “Some men are born great, some men achieve greatness, and some men have greatness thrust upon them.” Dame Edris Bird undoubtedly achieved greatness. From humble beginnings on Wappings Lane in the Point, she rose to achieve our nation’s highest honour. On our 38th Anniversary of Independence last year, she was named Dame Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of the Nation (DCN) for distinguished service in the field of education and community service (see colour photos). The award was greeted with universal acclaim, never mind that many Antiguans and Barbudans felt that she should have been thusly honoured earlier.
Her three remarkable children, by the love of her life, Mr. Oscar Bird, a brother of the father of the nation, Sir Vere Cornwall Bird, are a living testament to her commitment to making the world that she inherited a better place. Her twin daughters, Dr. Jillia and Dr. Jackie Bird are medical doctors and her son, Clement Bird is an attorney, as well as the Right Worshipful District Grandmaster of Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. He is the first black man, and the first West Indian, to hold that post in over 250 years).
In a recent conversation with Dr. Jillia, she told this writer that she wanted to thank Franz DeFreitas and I, as well as the rest of the Observer family for keeping the good Dame company. Dr. Jillia said that after her morning devotion and breakfast, Dame Edris would venture out on the porch to sit and listen to our VOICE OF THE PEOPLE broadcast,without fail. She called in on several occasions as well. It was a part of her daily constitutional. Needless to say, we were quite flattered and honoured.
We here at VOICE OF THE PEOPLE will be paying special tribute to our dearly beloved Dame Edris Bird DCN, on today’s broadcast. We have arranged a special panel of some of Antigua’s leaders in the fields of culture, education, medicine and politics to share their thoughts on Dame Bird’s life and legacy, particularly how she helped shape them into the great Antiguans that they are today. (Dr. Glen Edwards, Hiram Forde, Harold Lovell, King Frank-I and Dorbrene O ’Marde). The management and staff at NEWSCO certainly wish to convey our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family. We feel the deep sense of loss and certainly trust that our good Lord will provide some measure of comfort in this hour of grief. ‘She fought the fight, she kept the faith, she finished her course’ . . . with distinction and grace. Truly, “Many daughters have done wondrously, but Dame Edris Bird excelled them all.”