By Theresa Goodwin
Past and current regional leaders joined locals and residents from both sides of the political divide to pay tribute to the late Prime Minister and National Hero, Sir Lester Bryant Bird, who died yesterday at the age of 83.
They all described Sir Lester as a true “son of the soil” who played a tremendous role in the growth and development of the country, and by extension the region.
Sir Lester, the country’s second prime minister, died around 6am on Monday, a statement from the government confirmed. Prime Minister Gaston Browne later shared a social media post in which he described Sir Lester as a great son of the soil, who contributed significantly to the socio-economic development of the country.
Former prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Baldwin Spencer, who interacted with Sir Lester in and out of the political arena, also paid tribute.
He noted that Sir Lester had also made his mark on the local sporting arena as an accomplished athlete.
“One cannot underestimate his contribution. We would have had our disagreements on several matters and the question of good governance, but at the same time I have to accept that he impacted this nation’s affairs in a positive way,” Spencer said.
Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerritt also stated that he is hopeful that Sir Lester’s contribution to the regional integration movement and to the economic development of Antigua and Barbuda will be long remembered and honoured.
Former Montserrat Premier, Reuben Meade, in extending his condolences, said Sir Lester is remembered as being the one to facilitate unfettered access of Montserratians to Antigua after they were displaced by the volcanic activity in the 1990s.
Similar sentiments were also shared by the Opposition Leader of St Kitts and Nevis, Dr Denzil Douglas, who stated that the founding member of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) was a regional stalwart and renowned international orator.
“Sir Lester was a man of many gifts and talents. Above all, he is remembered for his delight and passion for nation building, regional uplift and his unique irresistible Caribbean spirit.
“PM Bird and I served in many situations and under very trying circumstances when the people of Caricom and the OECS were confronted with numerous social, economic, financial and political challenges of immense crisis. I can attest to his experience, intellectual acumen and strong political will to direct the advancement of his beloved country,” Dr Douglas said.
Also reflecting on the passing of the former athlete and statesman was Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States, Sir Ronald Sanders.
He said that beyond any doubt, Sir Lester was the architect of modern Antigua who was responsible for successfully transitioning the country from an economy dependent on a defunct sugar industry into one of the leading tourism centres in the world.
He said under Sir Lester’s stewardship, Antigua and Barbuda became a high-income country, transforming the quality of jobs and housing and introducing high-end tourist resorts.
Sir Ronald said Sir Lester was a keen sportsman who played golf in his later years, although his passion was cricket.
According to him, Sir Lester was a superb pace bowler with a strategic knowledge of the game and, at a different time, he might have been selected to represent the West Indies.
Bird’s early triumph for Antigua and the West Indies was winning a bronze medal for long jump for the West Indies at the 1957 Pan American Games.
He is also remembered as a committed regionalist who was highly instrumental in establishing the OECS, serving twice as its chairman. He also strongly influenced the decision to turn the Eastern Caribbean Currency Authority into a Central Bank that still serves its member states today.
Long-time colleague and Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minister, Lionel “Max” Hurst, also stated that “he achieved what he set out to achieve, which was to make Antigua and Barbuda a better place than it was when he took over the mantle of leadership”.
Meanwhile, a statement issued by the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) stated that in his early life and prior to his foray into politics, Sir Lester was known and admired for his sporting feats in cricket, track and field and long jump and, as a politician, his contributions to the economic and social development of Antigua and Barbuda cannot be gainsaid and his leadership at both the OECS and Caricom levels was impactful and valued by his peers.
Lester Bryant Bird began his political career in 1971 when he was nominated to the Senate.
He served as the country’s second prime minister from 1994 to 2004, and was also chairman of the ruling Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) from 1971 to 1983.
On November 3 2014, Sir Lester was awarded the National Honour of Knight of the Most Exalted Order of National Hero (KNH), Antigua and Barbuda’s highest honour, for his contribution to national development as an outstanding sportsman, lawyer and parliamentarian for 38 years.
Earlier this year, the country’s lone hospital was also renamed the Sir Lester Bird Mount St John’s Medical Centre in his honour.
The board, management, and staff of the hospital have also expressed condolences to the family and many admirers of Sir Lester Bird.
”His conceptualisation of this medical centre continues to be one of the most significant and life-changing national achievements, benefitting the lives of many. “Today, we recommit ourselves to our organisation’s vision to be the regional accredited healthcare institution of choice,” the hospital said in a statement.