Who will sing a song of a hero forgotten?

Among the shared peculiarities of organizations religious and political is the tendency of their shepherds to protect their sheep from possible challenges to their inculcated belief in belief. For many of us ignorance truly is bliss—regardless of the cost to ourselves and our progeny, not to say the land that gave us birth.

Most of us cannot say how some 83 million acres of Saint Lucia’s seabed came to be under the control of a controversial Denver, Colorado oilman named Jack Grynberg. And while a few of us may have heard over the Saturday night din at our favorite watering hole that Mr. Grynberg’s RSM has sued our government for breach of contract—and demanded damages in the preposterous amount of US$500 million—we appear quite content with not knowing how we arrived before the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes.

The eyes have it! Left to right, a weeping Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, a seemingly perplexed governor general Pearlette Louisy, deputy prime minister Mario Michel, foreign affairs minister George Odlum  and distracted agriculture minister Cassius Elias at Kenneth John’s funeral ceremony in 1998.

The eyes have it! Left to right, a weeping Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, a seemingly perplexed governor general Pearlette Louisy, deputy prime minister Mario Michel, foreign affairs minister George Odlum and distracted agriculture minister Cassius Elias at Kenneth John’s funeral ceremony in 1998.

Ask your next-door neighbor or your BBB (best booze buddy) what he or she knows about Frenwell, Rochamel, the Vision Commission or IMPACS and chances are you’ll be invited to switch to a subject not as demanding on their virgin cerebella.

Over the weekend, while the governor general was decorating certain fellow Saint Lucians for services allegedly rendered, I dared to ask some of our declared best brains about the process that had delivered this year’s crop of honorees. None of them satisfied my curiosity.

So now, having engaged in some determined prospecting, this is what I came up with: the Order of National Heroes was established in February 2000, governed by the National Honors and Awards Act of 1986, apparently retooled in 2008.

Reportedly housed at the governor general’s official residence, the Chancery of National Awards and Honors invites the particularly nationalistic among us to avail ourselves of nomination forms from advertised locations and to submit to a National Heroes Commission the names and contributions of citizens we consider deserving of special honors.

After carefully vetting all submissions, the commission sends its list of chosen candidates to the governor general. The current commission comprises nine individuals jointly appointed by the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and the governor general. It will come as no surprise that at least four members of the commission are also well known politicians.

Commenting on its appointment nearly three years ago, the prime minister said: “This is part of our collective desire to reshape our political landscape, moving away from the divisiveness which has destructively dominated the operations of national institutions towards a spirit of inclusiveness and due recognition.”

According to the National Honors and Awards Act, the Order of National Hero may be conferred “upon any person who was born in Saint Lucia or who at the time of his or her death was a citizen of Saint Lucia.”

More proof that ours is a dead heroes’ society? Not if we ignore the Act in favor of the usually unambiguous Jadia JnPierre-Emmanuel’s Facebook page, where it is stated that National Hero status can be conferred on “any citizen living or dead.” (Doubtless with good reason, Da Jade neglected to say whether such citizen must be a native Saint Lucian.)

The National Hero must have given service that has “altered the course of the history of Saint Lucia; given service to Saint Lucia which has been exemplified by visionary and pioneering leadership, extraordinary achievements or attainments of the highest excellence, and which has redounded to the honor of Saint Lucia; or through his or her heroic exploits or sacrifices contributed to the improvement of the economic and social conditions of Saint Lucia and Saint Lucians generally.”

Judging by the above, it would seem the miscreants qualify for National Hero status that had turned William Peter Boulevard into an open sewer on the evening of 18 July 1979; that had encouraged red-eyed hooligans to smash and loot every show window in the vicinity and carry away merchandise worth millions of dollars; that earlier had assaulted speakers at a post-elections United Workers Party rally; that had gone on to transmogrify a House session into a low-rent rum-shop brawl and forever altered parliamentary behavior—not to mention “the course of the history of Saint Lucia.”

My investigations revealed that this time around no names were submitted to the committee set up for the specific purpose of receiving and processing nominations for the National Hero award. I am further reliably informed that word from the mount had directed the group to submit two names and that is precisely what it did, with no outside input: Sir John Compton and Sir George Charles, both deceased.

Now, I am not about to quibble here over eligibility, though some may have good reason to. What concerns me is, yes, the process that delivered the acknowledged two local political heavyweights. That, and my conviction that doing well the job one was hired to do hardly merits a hero’s laurel—especially if you happen to be a politician and consequently not without heavy baggage inconsistent with the universal idea of heroism.

President Eisenhower and John McCain were American heroes long before they became politicians. They earned their accolades on the battlefield, fighting their country’s enemies, real and imagined. Government leaders Compton and Charles have both been duly rewarded with knighthoods and other honors relative to their contributions in office—their impactful misjudgments notwithstanding. But there is another man, yes, a born Saint Lucian, for a short time a politician, whose name immediately comes to mind whenever I find myself, at home or abroad, discussing true heroism. Indeed, others who knew him well insist he should long ago have been canonized.

He departed this life the day before Nelson Mandela landed at Vigie Airport on a short visit arranged by Prime Minister Compton shortly before his United Workers Party lost the 1997 general elections to Kenny Anthony and his Saint Lucia Labour Party. Even before he had reboarded his plane (en-route to the UK, if memory serves) our government had renamed a road in honor of the recently elected first black president of South Africa.

Conceivably, the departed native son had taken to heart the words of his Scriptural namesake: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” On the remembered Wednesday afternoon, he had one time too many put the survival of others before his own.

He had attempted to rescue from the relentless grip of the notorious riptides at Grand Anse a woman and her young child, visiting white non-nationals, for those who consider such details important! Somehow he had managed to pull the child to safety but not its mother. As for her would-be rescuer, they disappeared together beneath the waves. Several hours passed before their bodies were retrieved.

An article featuring Mandela’s visit that I wrote for the July 4, 1998 issue of this newspaper, subtitled “National Honors Should be Reserved for Contributions Over and Beyond the Call of Duty,” ended with these words: “Now that we know the difference between what Mandela stands for and the self advertisers, let us profit the opportunity, for a constructive change, to declare a true national hero.

“Few outside of Babonneau had heard of him before the 1997 general elections. But those who knew him had always considered him special; someone who by his daily actions demonstrated more love for others than he saved for himself. He may not have been as practiced in his diction as others I could name; certainly he was never in a hurry to spout off on TV. Relatively little was written about him in the newspapers, for he shunned publicity. Ah, but he was perhaps the best loved of our current politicians. May we not soon forget this genuine national hero!”

On July 11, this newspaper featured a front-page photograph of the deceased in his casket as he was carried out of Babonneau’s Good Shepherd Catholic Church to the hearse that would transport him to his final destination.

The STAR’s banner headline read: “Hero Laid to Rest!”

Among the pallbearers was a tear-soaked, red-shirted, fairly athletic Kenny Anthony. Minutes earlier, barely able to contain himself, the prime minister had said of his late parliamentary colleague: “There is no love more special than one has for his neighbor.” Lousy grammar, yes, but always it’s the thought that counts. Over and over he referred to the dearly departed as a true hero.

“When he took off his clothes and went into the turbulent, treacherous waters,” the prime minister went on, “he did not know who he was going to save. It turned out to be two visitors to our shores.”

He correctly described the rescue attempt that went awry as “a demonstration of love that is powerful, color blind, not tainted by the trauma and competition of politics.”

He promised, in the presence of the grieving young widow, to dedicate to her husband’s memory a hero’s park located near the government’s waterfront offices. Alas, that was the last time the prime minister mentioned publicly the name Kenneth John.

No sooner had his body been interred than his party brethren forgot about him. There are no images of Kenneth John to be found at any of the island’s schools and other institutions; no stories are told in his honor; none of our poets has been inspired to put into rhyme that fatal Wednesday at Grand Anse Beach. The name is never cited of the man who gave his life so two total strangers might live.

It’s as if taxi operator Kenneth John had never existed.

It took fifteen years after the establishment of the Order of National Hero before a worthy recipient could be identified; two, actually. And while one was named John, he was not Kenneth John, who presumably had never given “outstanding service to Saint Lucia, exemplified by visionary and pioneering leadership which has redounded to the honor of Saint Lucia.”

All Kenneth John ever did was get himself drowned trying to rescue two strangers at a dangerous local beach without lifeguards. The honored government leaders, on the other hand, had, by recent and convenient measure, done what they were paid to do. And that, for some, was deserving of hero status.

Besides, in his Independence Day address the prime minister, with his straightest face in place, had declared the time finally right to raise to the status of heroes “two founding fathers in our quest for decolonization and independence.”

Alas, at last Sunday’s investiture ceremony, Sir John’s widow, Lady Janice, went officially unacknowledged. As if to pour acid into her wound, at the same time that the Order of National Hero was posthumously being bestowed on the “father of the nation” this is what appeared on Jadia JnPierre Emmanuel’s famous Facebook page:

“Sir John! Sir John! Sir John! Why didn’t you reform the education system sooner? You are responsible for all this ignorance being boldly displayed in Saint Lucia. So many people were denied education and we all must suffer as a result. I am mad at you, Papa. Why didn’t you have the foresight to know that no minimum education and skill requirements would be necessary to join Facebook and engage in political, national, social discourse? You did this! Now people have tools without skills and still they think they are experts!”

As usual, Da Jade gets the last word!

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