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Country boy now PM

Country boy now PM I am a very shy, retiring and private man, says Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. (Lennox Devonish)

By Gercine Carter | Sun, November 28, 2010 - 12:01 AM

The death of David Thompson catapulted Freundel Stuart into the Prime Minister’s chair in the twinkling of an eye.

Though his political life had placed him in the public’s eye for more than two decades, as Prime Minister a lot of Barbadians still wonder who this man is, many regarding him as an unknown quantity, while others have charged he is distant and aloof.

In fact, the country boy who grew up in Marchfield, St Philip, and now at age 59 occupies the highest office in the land, says simply: “I am a very shy, retiring and private man.”

But he is clearly a man comfortable in his own skin – “at peace with myself”, as he puts it.

The Prime Minister unveiled the man behind the office in a frank, open interview with the Sunday Sun in a relaxed setting at his office at Government Headquarters last week.

He exuded warmth and displayed a keen sense of humour, wit and conviviality, balanced with the intellectual depth and intensity with which Barbados appears more familiar.

Through anecdotes, humour and often-times serious reflection, the Prime Minister told the story of a man focused from childhood, whose development was predicated on experiences along the way.

The son of a maid and a sugar factory worker, Stuart lost his father tragically at age eight.

Relating that experience he said: “On the very last day of the sugar crop, he [his father]  had just had a conversation with the manager of the factory and had thanked God that they had gotten through the crop season without any accidents, and at the end of that conversation he said he was going to turn off, and ‘I am going home’ . . . .

“It was when he went to turn off, that a piece of machinery broke off and killed him.”

The loss of her husband was devastating to Stuart’s mother and she at once became very protective of her only son.

At eight years old he sat and passed for both Combermere and Foundation schools, and would have preferred Combermere because of that school’s musical traditions. But when she considered her young son would have to take two buses to Combermere, Stuart’s mother decided he was going to Boys’ Foundation School instead. It is a decision for which he says he thanks her to this day.

Two years at Foundation, the day he refused to accept a flogging from headmaster Lee Harford Skeete for something he had not done, he was expelled forthwith.

“My mother was all rattled. I had just lost my father, I had this big opportunity before me, and as far as she was concerned I had thrown it away.”

Taking a day off from her $5 per week maid’s job, Stuart’s mum marched him back to school the next day and in the presence of the headmaster gave him the ultimatum: “If you don’t take it [flogging] from him, you will get it from me.”

A fleeting thought of his mother’s “unregulated” blows saw him submitting to the headmaster’s flogging, and readmission to school.

It however proved to be a profound incident in the young student’s life.

“The experience taught me that the justice systems are not perfect and that many innocent people can get punished and those punishments, depending on what kind they are, can have life-changing effects. That is when I made a firm decision that whatever else I did not do with my life, I was going to become a defence lawyer.”

Accepted back at school, he settled down to work, as a firm bond developed between student and headmaster, to the extent that other students began referring to him as “Skeete’s son”.

Stuart proudly maintains: “He made a profound and very deep impression on my life as headmaster of the school, as teacher.”

Fittingly Stuart’s law chambers are named after Lee Harford Skeete.

The name not only represents his admiration for a former headmaster, but it is indicative of the Foundation experience which he reveres because of “a wonderful school life” which he “thoroughly enjoyed”.

He also remembers teachers of his era “with profound gratitude”; their impressive influence that led him to become a teacher at the Princess Margaret School when he left Foundation.

Even his ritual Saturday pudding and souse is delivered from “Granny” – Evelyn Walcott, who holds fond memories of schoolboy Stuart from the days when she operated the school’s canteen.

Questioned on his likes and dislikes, Stuart becomes philosophical.

“Life is not about what you like or do not like. It is about what you understand, and as long as you understand something, you can establish some kind of relationship with it . . . . I have always tried to understand people so that I can determine what kind of relationship I should have with them.

“In fact I enjoy being around people,” he remarks – like the people he encounters at shops  he frequents in his St Philip neighbourhood, or at his barber’s on the weekend when he shucks collar and tie for short sleeves, shorts and sandals to while away some time there.

He claims to have introduced his predecessor to the many shops that Thompson frequented when the late Prime Minister took up residence in St Philip. Stuart always accompanied him for the social interaction.

“There is a public perception of you as a very stiff, distant wordsmith,” the Prime Minister is challenged. Again he gives a prolonged smile and then counters: “I am quietly amused when I hear some people in Barbados talking about me.

“When I hear these portrayals of me, I get the sense that one day I was plucked from a monastery and I need to sever my relationship with monks and come into the real world, and that I am uncomfortrable in the real world . . . .

“Not so at all,” he states emphatically. Rather, he explains: “People who really know me and have ease of access to me don’t recognise the person that they hear other people talking about.

“It is just that I have not been around and about as much as many of my contemporaries have been, and it is because I have always had very clear objectives in my life.

“I knew that I wanted to become a lawyer; I worked towards that; I knew that I was going to enter politics, I worked towards that; and it just happens that I determined that I should forego a lot of the simple pleasures that other people who did not have the same objectives or who did not relate to those objectives in the same way, enjoyed”.

“But I do not know that I am distant,” he insists.

“Wordsmith?” he asks, pondering for a few seconds before responding: “I love language. I think it is a very powerful tool. I think there is a certain importance not only to what you say, but how you say it because language is an instrument of persuasion . . . .

“If I am going to be a lawyer or politician, my tools are words, language, and therefore I felt constrained to equip myself with the tools I would need for my two trades.”

Smiling, he quips: “If that results in my being described as a wordsmith, then I plead guilty and ask for no mitigation of sentence.

Though his plate is now loaded, it is not unlikely to find the Prime Minister handwashing his own laundry, and he confesses: “I love doing my own laundry. It relaxes me.

“I like playing up in water. That’s when all of my intellectual creativity comes to the fore. That’s when I think about political ideas, the use of language, the solving of problems . . . .

“Even when I was practising law, if I was going to do a case and I was not certain about how it was going to go, about what line my cross-examination should take, all I had to do was to put some clothes in a basin and go and play up in the water as long as posible, and think the problem through. By the time I am finished the world is a very clear place.”

Calypso is the Prime Minister’s favourite music. He boasts: “There is a lot of music in my family . . . . My mother was an excellent singer . . . . Ronnie D, the calypsonian, is my cousin; Mike Sealy, the guitarist, is my cousin as well.”

But independent of that family history he confesses always having a love for music.

As Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart considers himself up to the task, though he did not realise his late mother’s dream of his becoming a priest.

 Part 2 of this interview with the Prime Minister will be published in next week Sunday.

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