Sleep in peace, Sir Lester

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He never allowed this writer to forget it. We’re talking about Sir Lester Bryant Bird, KNH, and his obvious gratitude at the math lessons given to him as a boy by my father, Joseph Quinn. Seems, Sir Lester was not one to forget those who, in some way, helped to shape the man that he turned out to be. Sir Lester lived in the Bird Road area at the time, and my aunt, Keturah Ireland, lived in a small house on Bird Road, owned by Papa Bird. She rented from him. She always spoke with much pride about Sir Lester, and opined that one day, he would take over from his dad. She was prescient.

In his autobiography, THE COMEBACK KID, Sir Lester signs his autograph with the following words, “To Paul Quinn; your father taught me well!” It is a fascinating and eye-opening account of the man that we are laying to rest tomorrow, next to his dear mother, Lady Doris Lydia Bird.

When Sir Lester returned from his law studies, he took Antigua and Barbuda by storm. He favoured a red beret cocked at a saucy angle, reminiscent of Cuba’s Ernesto Che Guevara, and in keeping with the revolutionary tenor and temper of the times. He loved clenching his fist, and speaking stridently. He put together a cadre of other young Antigua Labour Party supporters who went about revitalizing the struggling Party with a remarkable zeal and fervour. The Progressive Labour Movement was still at the pinnacle of its power, but there were small pockets of discontent and disaffection, and Sir Lester and his team went about exploiting those areas of weakness. Needless to say, after many planning meetings at the St. John’s Motel on Fort Road (home of Mr Lionel Hurst Sr., the father of Ambassador Lionel ‘Max’ Hurst), and the Northants Club on Wappings Lane and St John’s Street, the landmark establishment owned by the famous, Sydney Bassnote, (the father of United Progressive Party candidate for St John’s City West, Alister Thomas), the Antigua Labour Party prevailed at the 1976 general election.

It is a testament to Sir Lester’s tenacity that he stuck with politics even though he had soundly been beaten in the 1971 polls. At that time, he ran as the Labour Party’s candidate in Barbuda. Remember, Sir Lester is of Barbudan extraction. His mother’s family was from Barbuda – Montague Bryant, her father, was born there, and Sir Lester speaks fondly of the precious moments spent on that idyllic bit of paradise. Of course, Sir Lester could be forgiven for thinking that his Barbudan roots would catapult him into the Barbuda seat in the 1971 general election. It was not to be. Sir Lester was going up against Sir Claude Earl Francis, a charming and amiable attorney with an easy smile and a keen intellect, who used the catch phrase, VOTE CLAUDE EARL, A SON OF THE SOIL, to great effect.  Sir Lester was not only rejected at the polls, but he was stoned out of town by the ornery Barbudan people.  Seemed, the Barbudan people wanted a direct son of the soil, not a second generation son.

Sir Lester recalls, with a great deal of affection, his years at the Antigua Grammar School, where he excelled as a cricketer, footballer and athlete. In fact, at his last athletic meet at the school, he was named the victor ludorum, what with him snagging first place in every event that he competed. Such was his prowess. During his fifth form year, he was also named as the Head Boy, under the illustrious Dr Alfred Blackett. (Dr Blackett had a eye for those blessed with charisma and exceptional leadership ability. He also chose our Governor General, Sir Rodney Williams, as Head Boy, a few years after Sir Lester). The point is that Sir Lester was endowed with the qualities of which great leaders are made, and when his turn to play the part arrived, he did not disappoint.

One of the things that endeared this writer to Sir Lester was his way with words. He could turn a phrase in a most appealing way. We will never forget the soaring oratory, the lofty rhetoric. The hifalutin way in which he was wont to express himself, when so inspired. For example, in the lead-up to the 1976 general election, when Sir George Walter was campaigning on the idea that he would lead Antigua and Barbuda into Independence, Sir Lester disabused him, and many of us, of that notion by preaching that Independence in 1976 “was not the right psychological time.”Many people, rightly or wrongly, agreed with Sir Lester. The point is, “he made it pellucid.” (a favourite word of his)

Much like his dad, Sir Vere Cornwall Bird Sr., Sir Lester was an imposing gentleman, big in stature and personality. He cut a dashing figure and sported a most charming and engaging smile. He certainly knew how to make an entrance, and his presence always filled the room. He had a way of bringing people together, searching for consensus and the workable medium. Of course, all those wonderful attributes were topped by his keen intellect, his remarkable vision and foresight, and his determination not to be denied. And they stood him in good stead as the chairman of the Antigua Labour Party for several years; as the essential” deputy leader to the prime minister; as the visionary and brains behind our modern tourism product and Heritage Quay; as the impetus for a new hospital; as the chairman of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States; and the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. He strode across the stage here in Antigua and Barbuda, playing many parts, and he played them well, in his own unique and special way. Now that he has made his exit, we are the poorer for it.

In his autobiography, THE COMEBACK KID, written in collaboration with Ambassador Lionel ‘Max’ Hurst, Sir Lester shares, “After I moved back to New York, on my graduation from the University of Michigan, Vere Jr. suggested that I join him in England and enroll in law school there. I resisted his invitation. Life in New York was fulfilling, and I had grown comfortable. The excitement of the US, the lightning swift societal changes that were taking place before my very eyes, the ebullience of Harlem, the cultural diversity of the City of New York, my satisfying work as a social worker – all compelled my continuing presence. Then dad visited me in New York. He came to persuade me to make even better use of my talents. He urged me to remember my commitment to improving conditions in Antigua and Barbuda, and reminded me that smart people were needed here too.” We were the richer here in Antigua and Barbuda on account of Sir VC’s visit to his son. And yes, he gave up the razzle and dazzle of New York City, as well as a big love affair that had begun to blossom with “an extraordinary woman who had won his heart in Michigan.” Again, Papa VC saved the day by persuading his son not to marry the Michigan beauty, citing his youthfulness, (he was only 23 years old), and his commitment to Antigua and Barbuda. Sir Lester listened to the more experienced voice of reason, citing love of country.

It is well known that Sir Lester and the late, great Leonard ‘Tim’ Hector were classmates and lifelong friends. In fact, Sir Lester speaks fondly of Tim, and shares that their friendship endured, never mind their political and philosophical differences. (He reveals in his autobiography that there was one brief two-year period in which they were not on speaking terms on account of politics). Seemed, the thing that bound them together was a deep and abiding love for Antigua and Barbuda, a determination to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people of this fair country of ours.  They are now together again in the Great Beyond, looking down from the battlements, and urging us on.

We here at NEWSCO certainly mourn with all Antiguans and Barbudans, and we wish to extend our heartfelt condolences to the entire Bird family. Sleep in peace, Sir! You played your part well. And we are grateful!

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