In paying tribute to James Alphaeus Emanuel Thomas, KCN, CMG, I do not pretend that my seven years as his deputy in the Antigua & Barbuda High Commission in London qualifies me to describe this quintessential man in terms most deserving. But because Sir James helped in building my diplomatic career, it seems right that I should join in honouring his memory.
Sir James was a man steeped in tradition who steadfastly adhered to those customs and practices he learned and cultivated. On his desk, he kept a jug of blue ink and a specially designed pen. When others had long switched to using the ballpoint pen, Sir James found thrill in dipping his pen in the liquid ink to write. On occasions, he would accidentally generate a spill, but was not deterred from this entrenched practice.
Some of us who worked with Sir James thought he was not an enthusiastic student of modernity. But as our understanding of the values and the principles he espoused became clearer, our appreciation for this remarkable son of the soil also solidified.
When I first arrived at the High Commission, the draft letters and notes I produced at his request were greeted with numerous mark ups, inserts and new sentences that completely transformed the original text. Over time, this became a coaching exercise by a veteran diplomat providing a young officer with training in the art of effective writing.
Sir James wrote with a flair and a flourish that were uniquely his own. As to his writing style and command of the English language, he was second to none. His expressions were lofty, colorful and, at times, melodious. But the message they conveyed was thoughtful and measured. Every word was carefully constructed to highlight the importance of the issue and to produce the desired results.
Government files are sure to contain many of his letters that were addressed to Ministers and senior civil servants in which he always ended with, “I await, with patience, your timely response.”
Such an expression seems simple and polite. However, when carefully examined, he was saying that he would be patient but he also wanted a speedy response – a contradiction of sorts.
Implicit in the sentence was Sir James’ exceptional ability to express precisely how he felt without offending anyone. Words heard from his mouth were tempered, reflective and diplomatic. He was truly the consummate diplomat who represented Antigua & Barbuda in Europe and beyond, with distinction.
He won the respect of his staff – not only because of the maturity and experience he brought to the post of High Commissioner, but also because Sir James was highly intelligent and used his intellect to inspire, motivate and challenge all of us.
It is not unusual in the workplace for bosses to call a staff meeting to address a particular problem. In the case of Sir James however, he would call his staff together and utter the following sentence – “let us exercise our minds” – words carefully crafted to achieve the desired outcome through the power of collective thinking. He believed in consensus building and insisted that every member of his staff had a contribution to make. I believe that Sir James’ emphasis on inclusion was connected to his humble beginnings.
High Commissioner Thomas was measured in his actions. Acting on impulse was not in his nature. Giving careful thought to making decisions was among his strengths.
Often, members of the staff would place on his desk proposals that in their opinion required urgent action. Days would pass into weeks without any hint of a decision. Sometimes, I would hear staff members lament about how slow the high commissioner was. But with the passage of time, it was always revealed that his deliberate inaction was the right decision.
He was a man of compassion and this is the quality I will always remember. The Bible speaks of bowels of compassion. It’s the kind of compassion that embraces all and a compassion that is selfless. Sir James was the epitome of this rear quality.
It is therefore not difficult to understand why Sir James could readily position himself to help the less fortunate. On occasions, the government treasury was late in sending the monthly remittances to pay staff. Rather than simply expressing regret he would always find a way to pay his staff. He took his fiduciary responsibility to his staff very seriously.
For shaping my professional development and for making such an outstanding contribution to nation building, I wish to honor his memory with my profuse gratitude.
May his soul rest in peace!
Starret Greene is a former Foreign Service Officer in the Foreign Service of Antigua and Barbuda – now OAS Representative in the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis