Statement on Hon. George William Johnson Odlum, SLC

The family of the late Hon. George William Odlum, SLC wishes to express its profound gratitude to the University of Bristol – and in particular, the University of Bristol’s Student Union for recognizing the contribution of Mr. Odlum and his pioneering role as the first Afro-descendant President of this Student Union; and it appears, any Student Union in the U.K.

We also take this opportunity to laud the lifelong activism of Dr. Paul Stephenson, OBE; who by God’s Grace is still in the here and now. We note his sterling contribution to improving racial integration of blacks and minorities in the Bristol community; and congratulate him on his many achievements and accolades – including his recent Honorary Doctor of Laws from Bristol University.

george-odlum

The late George Odlum.

Students of Bristol University should emulate these distinguished activist sons who used their difference to make a difference. Every time an Afro-descent student enters these rooms, he or she will be reminded that there were others who came before and answered the high call to service, to encourage the generations that follow to be of even greater service in engendering a world of equity in diversity.

It is fitting that this tribute be paid to Mr. Odlum in Black History Month. However, it is also fitting to pay tribute to an unsung heroine whose generous heart and soul, whose interest, investment and mentorship of the young student, George Odlum – made this all possible. She is none other than Mrs Doris Palmer, who helped shape George Odlum’s extraordinary life.

The year was 1955, when 21-year-old George Odlum attended classes at the North Western Polytechnic in London. He had come to England to pursue his almost impossible dream of further education through the work and study method. While taking his ‘A’ Levels, he was in Mrs Palmer’s English class. As Mrs Palmer recalls: “Almost all the students were from overseas, so I always tried to keep their interest! One day I saw George falling asleep in front of me! So at the end of the class I spoke to him. It turned out he was working nights, and doing class work in the day as his father had had to stop his small allowance because of his elder sister’s serious illness. So he had no money for digs or food.”

Mrs. Palmer saw the exceptional promise in that life – and she did the unthinkable. She took a chance on George, inviting the young, black, island-stranger into her very British, very white family: first for a weekend to meet the family and then for the rest of the year before he went to Bristol University. The quietly unconventional Palmers defied norms and the odds to take into their home a struggling Afro-Caribbean student when he needed it most.

George easily became a cherished part of the family – as beloved as Mrs Palmer’s mother; and their three precious children all under 5 at the time: Neil, Alison and John – and their over-pampered dog, Hamlet!

It was Mrs. P (as George called her) who leveraged her influence and alumni networks to assist young George in securing a place at Bristol University. Her faith in George’s abilities was never misplaced – and he was tunnel-visioned about getting his B.A. in English and Philosophy, regardless of the attractions or distractions. Mrs P shares a particular anecdote: “One of George’s holiday jobs was with Birds Eye Peas and their factory management. The foreman tried to persuade him to give up Bristol University and take a permanent job with them!” She then proudly announces, “Of course, he refused!”

The Palmers continued to play an invaluable part in young George’s life as a student in Bristol – coaching him in debating techniques, exposing him to a variety of literary genres; the performing arts and the joys of classical music. And he, in turn, shared with the family the rich history, culture – and even cuisine – of his country, St. Lucia. It was a symbiosis for success and George Odlum and the Palmers remained connected, in touch and even visited the other throughout all the stations of his life.

Ultimately, it was this act of uncommon faith which made all the difference. Mrs Palmer could have safely remained in her closed bud of familiarity ignoring the painful condition of another. But this was not who she was. She risked being open, so that another could blossom. And still today, we reap the harvest of her magnanimity.

So, as we open these new rooms today in the Bristol Student Union to herald the remarkable lives of George Odlum and Paul Stephenson, let each of us in the warm humanity of the Palmer family, look for uncommon opportunities to open doors to those who may be in need. Let each of us make room in our full lives so that others with much less can also have a space to develop and grow.Thank you

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