Fri | Jul 3, 2020

Rebecca Tortello | Forever grateful to Oliver Clarke

Published:Thursday | June 4, 2020 | 12:16 AM

In the passing of the Honourable Oliver Clarke, our nation has once again lost a strong son who was dedicated to promoting all things Jamaican. Having experienced the personal loss of a national public figure almost a year ago, my heart goes out to his family and friends who are like family. As the well-deserved tributes pour in, many will focus on his contributions to the development of media and the private sector, and his long-standing support of various charities, but the Oliver I was fortunate to know was a man who loved history in general and Jamaican history in particular.

He was a methodical collector of historical items on Jamaica – books, posters, postcards, pictures – which he carefully and lovingly catalogued and with which he was very familiar. Oliver was a well-travelled, well-read Renaissance man who never forgot his roots in Westmoreland. A visit with him always offered the opportunity to learn and he often used his dry humour to sometimes trick you into thinking he was not participating in discussions critically – when nothing ever slipped by him.

I knew Oliver from a child and as I grew older, I recognised in him a curious mind that was not only quick to challenge you to think critically, but quick to identify promise, always managing in various ways to offer his support. I knew I could call him at any time to bounce off any ideas I had (no matter how impractical or ideological they might have been) and expect a reasoned, thoughtful response – albeit with some teasing thrown in. I contacted him often over the years and he was one who encouraged my decision to return home to Jamaica and contribute in any way I could.

From time to time, Oliver would call me and I always answered those calls with a smile, wondering what idea he had to share. Often those ideas led me to do research that involved writing of some kind. The most memorable of these was in the early 2000s when he called me into his office at The Gleaner – where he kept his fantastic collection of Jamaican historical record – and said he wanted to do a series on Jamaican history. He was so fascinated by the forces that had shaped this island he so loved that he wanted to find a way to reveal them to people who, unlike him, had no real interest in Jamaican history.


An amateur historian in the middle of writing my PhD dissertation, I readily agreed while marvelling at the magnificent collection around me in bookcases and cabinets. I told him I would like a series like that and he told me that was good because he wanted me to write it. But, I responded, you have a newspaper full of writers, why would you ask me to do this? He replied that he thought I would be able to bring the kind of approach to it that he envisioned and asked if I would agree to try it at least.

Recognising this would give me access to his library, a chance to try a less academic type of writing and also earn me some money while completing my studies, I said yes. Thus began a two-year journey investigating pieces of Jamaica’s past that led to a monthly series of the same name and saw me visiting and speaking with Oliver regularly as we worked out potential topics and I sent him draft pieces for feedback. His idea was to use The Gleaner archives as much as possible for images and to focus as much on well-known events and individuals as on lesser known ones.

That is how I came to learn about the inimitable Cicely Williams, one of the first female graduates of Oxford University, a medical doctor from Oliver’s home parish, who at a time when many women were not even working outside the home, much less graduating from universities, went on to become recognised as the mother of the field of maternal and child medicine. It is how I learned that centuries ago the Ward Theatre was once a space where shows debuted before going on to Broadway. It is where I learned of the horrors of the Kendal train tragedy at a time when the Jamaican railway was at its height. It is where I learned of Martin Luther King’s visit to Jamaica in the 1960s and so much more – all lessons which were deepened through discussions with Oliver and none of which I had ever heard of even though I had taken CSEC history and had a first degree in the subject.

It was rewarding to both of us just how well received the Pieces of the Past series was, and it justified his instinct that the inherent pride Jamaicans carry would draw them to learning more about specific events and people that have helped to shape the country. The fact that it cemented the critical role of The Gleaner in chronicling this history was, of course, not a coincidence but a reflection of Oliver’s clever and creative mind.

I am forever grateful to Oliver for seeing in me the potential to do this series which eventually became a book, and entrusting me with his own books on loan for extended periods to conduct the research. I cherish his confidence in me, his unwavering support and the memories of our many discussions, including his willingness to entertain my sometimes youthfully exuberant ideas. His is a legacy of success through determination, a reminder that humour is always an effective tool in any discussion, and that freedom of the press is not only vital but brings with it a responsibility to educate on all aspects of life including two areas he dearly loved – history and culture.

Jamaica owes him a debt of gratitude on many fronts. He knew who and what he liked, but he treated all with equal respect – equally at home with the head of the nation as he was with his co-workers, members of his staff, or the man on the street. Oliver’s example of leadership was to approach any and all challenges with a sharp mind and a sharp wit. He was a special man who I not only greatly respected but who I consider myself very lucky to have known.

His was a life well lived and lived to the fullest, and if it is any consolation, his legacy lives on in the lives of those, like mine, whom he touched, as it does in the many aspects of the Jamaican landscape that bear the fruits of his efforts.

My sincerest condolences to his beloved wife, Monica, and daughter, Alex, and the rest of the members of the Clarke family, whom he cherished above all else and whose role as patriarch he assumed deftly and passionately. May he rest in perfect peace.

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