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Remembering Easton Wentworth Xavier Douglas

BY PAUL BUCHANAN

Sunday, September 23, 2018

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(The following is an edited version of the remembrance given by former National Coordinator of Operation Pride Paul Buchanan, delivered during the Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the life of former Cabinet minister and Member of Parliament Easton Wentworth Xavier Douglas who died on August 26 at age 81. The service was held at St Andrew Parish Church last Thursday.)

The young Abraham Lincoln once wrote that his greatest ambition was to be esteemed by his fellowmen and to be worthy of that esteem. The young Easton Douglas understood and followed that precept. Your presence here this morning and the tremendous outpouring of tributes across the country are clear testimony that Easton Douglas succeeded in that regard.

As his journey's end was fast approaching, I was called to his bedside. There I found him in a seemingly deep sleep and immediately whispered: “Easton, it is Paul Buck.” He stirred, with eyes closed and slight smile I continued: “What's this thing about me doing your remembrance? You are going to win this battle.” He shook his head in satisfied resignation, opened his eyes, smiled with comradely fist and thumb finger pointing upwards, softly whispered: “Tell it.”

Easton Douglas's story cannot be told in a single remembrance. At the same time, we need not enlarge him in death greater than he was in life. His achievements, by themselves, are in fact very large, monumental and multifaceted. Like all of us, he was not a perfect man, but was called to a perfect mission: to inculcate our nation with a sense of caring for others, particularly the less fortunate, promoting environmental decency and spatial order in a disorderly land. In this important enterprise he held fast to the teachings of his fathers, kept the promise and has left Jamaica a better place. When the history of our time is written, the name Easton Wentworth Xavier Douglas will be cited among that rare breed of public servants that can truly be called builders of our nation.

We remember him well, as a legendary, even iconic government town planner, resolute and articulate with an encyclopaedic knowledge of spatial planning issues. He displayed a schoolboy's elasticity and an unquenchable passion for environmental matters beyond the normal grasp of mere mortals. On one of those eventful days, as we awaited the arrival of former Prime Minister P J Patterson for the handover of housing units at Riverton Meadows, there was Easton Douglas animatedly exclaiming: “Ladies and gentlemen, you see the beautiful vistas on the horizon?” The gathering stood totally bemused, as they only saw the towering Riverton dump in the background, while Easton saw the clouds reaching down to touch the trees.

He early told me that it was Norman Manley who first aroused his interest in physical planning, on one of his many visits to his parents' home at Pretoria Road in Whitfield Town. He confirmed that in the despondent colonial settings of those days, the former Premier of Jamaica always counselled that the future of the country lies in planning, science and technology. In a positively coincidental way Manley's thoughts paralleled those of Marcus Garvey, and the young Easton Douglas son of Edward Douglas, an unrepentant Garveyite — needed no further prompting.

Each generation has challenges not of its own choosing, but its character and spirit are tested and measured by how it responds. Easton Douglas and his brother Conrad were first responders to the environmental degradation and spatial anomalies that existed in post-independent Jamaica. And so began Easton's rite of passage, precipitating his journey of preparation and corrective action.

Winner of Government scholarships and graduate studies in planning, surveying and estate appraisal completed at the universities of London and Reading, England, he returned home to confront the task he had set himself.

As projects manager at the National Housing Corporation and assistant to former Minister of Housing Anthony Spaulding in the late-1970s, I had a ringside view of Easton's resolve to ensure that his nation appreciates and respects proper environmental standards. Inevitably, there were frequent clashes between the unwavering Easton, as government town planner, and Tony as an equally strong-willed Minister of Housing, with each seeking ascendancy in interpreting residential planning policy.

Tony Spaulding, an eminent jurist, understood planning laws but Easton was more cognisant of the potential for abuse beyond the narrow confines of the law. That is why, when Tony imperiously cited his authority as Minister of Housing, Corporation Sole to undertake a particular development, Easton would remind him in writing or to his face that his powers were circumscribed by the National Resources Conservation Act. And yes, there were times when the arguments almost ended in physical confrontation, as Easton would not yield one inch.

This was the case with the Stadium Gardens project, where in the presence of former Permanent Secretary Clovis McLean, George Sterling and myself, there was a heated disagreement. Easton left the minister's office in a rage with Tony in pursuit shouting epithets unworthy to be recalled in this sacred chapel. Easton stood his ground downstairs and responded: “You are lucky, you have Clovis and George to hold you back.”

Soon after, in the quiet confines of his office, Tony instructed that all the mitigated measures recommended by Easton should be incorporated in the project. Today, the Stadium Gardens project stands as a shining testimony of Easton Douglas' resolve to uphold the integrity of spatial planning in the public sector. Notwithstanding his detailed adherence to proper standards, Easton Douglas's tenure as government town planner witnessed a record number of housing starts and completions unmatched hitherto or thereafter.

Admittedly also, in his quest to sensitise all stakeholders about the dangers to the environment, long before climate change became watchwords, we would often be bored by his long lectures. On one particular occasion while addressing an Operation Pride seminar, he paused after an hour into his speech and the gratefully relieved audience all stood and clapped vigorously. In a second, our hopes were dashed, as Easton stoically declared: “Mr Buchanan, please ask your officers to sit, I have only completed the introductory phase of my presentation”. It was indeed another very, very long evening.

In his last days, he found satisfaction in the thousands of landless Jamaicans who benefited from secure tenure under Operation Pride during his earlier stint as Minister of Housing and the Environment. He often confided to me that despite distractions and misrepresentations, the delivery of over 30,000 planned lots to first-time homeowners and the resulting social and economic upliftment represent the greatest instance of land reform in the western world.

Despite overpowering ill health, he refused to let his journey end, and gave his all in passing knowledge to a new generation of planners, surveyors and land valuators. As chairman of the National Housing Trust he drew on his vast experience in reasserting the NHT's role in fulfilling the shelter aspirations of our people. Critically also, he challenged developers to provide practical and affordable housing solutions to reduce squatting and thereby counter criminality.

At the end, he confided to me that he was extremely sad in not finishing all he wanted to achieve. But he understood clearly that unearned suffering is redemptive, that somewhere, somehow, he will be remembered justly.

So Easton Douglas, a glorious original in a world of too much superficiality, a humanist who made us all larger by the sheer dignity of his persona, now leaves the stage. Sadly also, too many in our nation are unaware of his pioneering work to better their lot. As we say this last farewell, let me invoke and paraphrase the words of the poet V H Friedlander to salute this authentic pathfinder and spatial planner par excellence:

“He shall not travel by the road he made, for him the heat by day, the cold by night, the inch slow progress and the heavy load. For them the shade of trees that then he planted, and yet the road is his as never theirs, Oh pioneer, you shall not travel but you made the road.”

Your work done, go now, Easton Douglas, go to the place that CLR James called 'the rendezvous of victory', the meeting place of the truly worthy. More than likely, you will meet once more with your fellow purveyors of social justice, who preceded you, your Cabinet colleagues of the class of 1989-1993, when first you entered the highest court in the land. And of course, there you will find the supreme champion of social good, Michael Manley. In that celestial reunion you will find the peace denied you in life and even more redeeming, there will never be an end to love. So go now Easton, my minister, mentor, and friend. Go to your Father in Heaven; exchange your cross for a crown, the prize that awaits you, the crown you truly deserve.

May flights of angels take you to your rest and may God's perpetual light shine on you, now and forever more. I thank you.

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