Born 25 February 1946, my dad, Charles Cooper Elliot Williams recently celebrated his 73rd and last birthday. Dad passed away on the 7th of April 2019. Dad had Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia. Before an accident left him unable to travel on his own, Dad visited with my family and me every year. After his fall, when he bumped his head, and the state took away his driving privileges, and when he could no longer travel alone to visit us, we flew to see him at his home in Midvale, Utah.
Regrettably, I won’t be attending the funeral. I am undergoing radiation treatment for Graves Eye Disease and won’t be able to travel to St. Vincent. I intend for this blog post to serve as my eulogy for Dad. I know Dad would have wanted me to put my health above all else.
Dad had his disease for a long time. We knew the prognosis, but we had hoped for more time. Time. That wondrous thing we rarely value until we understand how little we have.
Growing up, Dad was a reserved sort of father. I know he and my Mom cared for us and did his very best that he knew. Kids don’t come with manuals. Dad was not the huggy and tickly sort of Dad. We had Uncle Clifford for that. He didn’t take out to the back yard and throw the ball. But he made sure we attended the best schools, private or public. Dad was ambitious; he worked diligently to improve his skills. He started his career as a front clerk at Barclay Bank, PLC at the branch on Halifax Street in Saint Vincent. He worked his way from that to the back-office clerk, to a junior accountant, to an accountant, to associate manager, to manager and near the end of his career, a regional manager. That’s a significant life accomplishment for a man with nothing but a high school education and overseas correspondence courses and a passion for learning and succeeding, for pushing to do better. Per Aspera Ad Astra was his high school’s, St. Vincent Grammar School, motto. It’s Latin for “through hardship to the stars”.
When I and my brother’s attended St. Vincent Grammar School in the late ’80s, Headmaster Stanley Campbell put the three of us in Crick House, the same “house” Dad was in when he attended the school. I feel a sense of pride for that — the Williams boys following in their father’s footsteps. And no, I was rarely once referred to by my first name. I was “Williams” to all my teachers.
Dad took every opportunity that came to his way. When Barclays Bank offered him training via correspondence courses, he took the chance to improved his skills. If that training sometimes means travelling to London, despite having a young family, he made it, placing us safely in the hands of family and friends while he was away. It takes a village, they say.
When the opportunity for advancement and experience, presented itself, Dad didn’t hesitate. He seized up it. I lived in at least four different West Indian islands, attended seven (7) different schools – two different high schools, three different elementary schools, and two kindergartens school – before my 18th birthday. But that’s what made out lives so fun and adventurous. We got to meet some exciting kids, many of whom were the kid’s Dad’s friend and coworkers: the John’s, the Layne’s, the Benjamin’s.
Dad loved to eat fish. I think he had some fish with his lunch and dinner every day and sometimes for breakfast but only if it was “smelly”. I believe that during the time he studied with Barclays in the UK studying he learned to enjoy British smoked Mackerel and Smoked Salmon from his classmate. When he returned to the West Indies, he continued to enjoy his new culinary treat. Smoked “Stinky” fish was not something anyone else in the family liked. Perhaps during his stay in the UK, Dad had developed a habit of wearing Indian chappals. He wore a pair which I think one of his Indian classmates had given to him.
Dad also had a weakness for fried black pudding. I remember Dad would pop the whole family in the car and drive us into town. He would stop at one of the street vendors and order an entire link of fried black pudding. Mom would take a piece out, make sure it wasn’t too hot, and pass it to the back seat. Sometimes he took it home, and we ate it with buttered toast, baked beans, a slice of tomato washed it down with a cup of tea. That was Dad’s version of English breakfast. I remember devouring that black pudding like it was candy. This Father’s Day I’m having English breakfast for brunch at The Dandelion, and English style pub in Philadelphia. I’ll be thinking of you, Dad.
I don’t remember when Dad took up photography as a hobby, but I know he enjoyed it. Living on a small island, one might think there isn’t much to see. But I don’t remember anything feeling small. Once we lived in Bequia, upstairs the little branch office in Port Elizabeth harbour, just a few hundred feet from the beach. On weekends, Dad would pile us in the back of his Mini Cooper and drive out to see our cousins and our grandparents in LaPompe. Sometimes he would drive to Spring (Bequia), and we’ve had some fun adventures watching my mom’s family catch crabs in the mangrove. He always took photos. It felt like hours to me, happy, carefree hours. That was the thing about Dad, he never felt rushed in those moments, and his hard work afforded his kids a carefree life.
Dad’s other hobby was his HiFi. I can remember the conversations with his friend about whether 8-track was better or reel-to-reel. I remember Dad saying “neither”, the cassette tape was going to be better. He was always on the cutting edge. Dad and I were nuts. We’d spend hours in the living room on a Sunday morning playing the same Pink Floyd record album over and over again doing listening tests. Did the Linn Sondek LP12 turntable and head unit produce warmer tones when driven through the Quad ESL 63 or the Bose 501 Series III? But the Quad’s lacked base. Did the McIntosh tube amplifier sound better than the Carver integrated amp? Should he get a pre-amp? Did the TEAC or the Technics tape recorder capture the essence of the original recording? Was metal cassette worth the extra cost? Did he set the bias right? Maybe we should start over. He had the whole kit – a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable, NAD pre-amp, McIntosh tube amplifier, Bose 501 Series III hung from the ceiling at one point – hooked up to a power controller which ensured a steady-state of amps and voltage to his toys; no messing around there.
We once lived for a short while in a small home on a hill in New Montrose. Sometime in 1969, my Mom brought home a bundle of noisy, smelly flesh which she called, Shane Christopher. I can’t say it was love at first sight, but it was the best present for a lonely sickly child. I had my first “bestie”. Someone with whom I could get into trouble, and did we ever!
I think Dad had bought a white Volkswagen Beetle at some time. He loved driving that thing out to the countryside. Dad would take us on these “mini” adventures to some of the remote areas of the island. But he often overestimated the capability of his car. It got stuck a lot. It got stuck on hills. St. Vincent has a lot of hills. I remember one time he had driven the car into a sticky situation and could not back it out without the whole family going over the side of the mountain. He had us all pile out of the car and went a distance uphill. But I could still see the car. I watched in fascination as Dad man patiently position that car back and forth – young memories tend to stretch time, but I think it was almost 30 minutes – until it was facing downhill. Then we went home.
That was Dad,” Nothing to worry about. I can handle this!”.
We moved to Barbados, where Dad taught me how to ride a bicycle. In 1971, the third leg of our brother-hood, Richard Bruce, was born in Barbados, brought home under candlelight because the power had gone out during a storm. For the few weeks of his life, he was sent away to live with family friends in St. Vincent while Shane and I were like twins left with another family friend in Barbados. Dad and Mom were moving from Barbados back to St. Vincent but needed to go to the UK for a few weeks for a bank event.
I think Bruce got that wanderlust that I think Dad had.
We moved from that small home in Bequia to a newly built home on a plateau in Dorsetshire Hill, St. Vincent. I learned something about hard work and patience. Hey Dad, “This house has no grass and no trees”. “Sure it does Khurt. We have to plant it first“.
We spent the next few weeks out in the hot, humid sun planting little grass squares. I hated it. I think I complained every day. Then we dug holes to plant cedar trees. Dad told us that soon the grass would grow and turn green and that in a few years, the cedar trees would provide windbreaks for the constant breeze coming off the mountain. Of course, he was right; except he forgot they would also make great climbing trees.
He planted fruit trees in the back – coconut, mango, Bequia plum, avocado, papaya. All that fruit, including grass, we all enjoyed for years along with a spectacular view of Kingstown Harbour. Dad taught me hard work, preparation, perseverance.
That house on the hill has stood for years through hurricanes because Dad has the foresight to plan the building so that it could.
When we moved to St. Lucia, I struggled in elementary school. I was getting duck-egg after dung-egg in maths when my grammar looked like a sad case of greek ebonics, Dad and Mom got me a tutor. Mom took me to my after-class sessions every day, but I think tutoring was Dad’s idea. I did better; top of the class. “through hardship to the stars”.
We then moved to Antigua. It was the best time of my life. Dad was a manager at this point. He was given a bank house, with a live-in housekeeper, a gardener, a driver. Does anyone remember the movie ET or watch the Netflix show “Stranger Things”? That’s what life was felt like for me living in Antigua. It about the freedom to ride my bicycle from home to my friends home, experimenting with the computer or working on some electronic gadget, staying past dark and having dinner with my friends family, and then riding my bike home in the twilight. It was a magical time.
Dad sent us to St. Joseph’s Academy, a Catholic boy’s high school run by Jesuits. I think he wanted to keep his teenage boys from the kind of troubled adolescent boys tend to find. He bought me my first computer, a Commodore VIC 20 and a few years before that a Radio Shack 101 electronic experiments kit, and a physics kits and a chemistry kit and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Keep in mind that there was no Radio Shack or electronics store on any of these islands. Dad was buying these on his trips to the USA. He was laying the foundation for something he saw in me and of course, I always had to share with my brothers, luckily none of whom seemed interested. I am sure at times he must have thought he was making a mistake. Like the time I took apart his Sony shortwave radio and used the parts and the family TV antenna to build a pirate radio transmission tower broadcasting over the whole neighbourhood. He was angry for a while. Then he asked me how I did it and bought himself a new model, Sony shortwave radio. He loved listening to the BBC. Or the time I mixed some chemicals up and made an explosion in my bedroom and burnt a hole in the carpet. Ok, that one pissed him off for a while. We were living in a bank house.
He encouraged me to join the soccer team. I sucked at it. But I loved it. The motto of our new school was “Ne Timeas”. It means “Fear not”. It’s a phrase that’s been with me all my life.
Then back to St. Vincent from Antigua. Paradise lost. Finish high-school. Finish A-level. Off to college. Lose touch with Dad. Things I regret. Finish college. Can’t find work. Perhaps graduate school is next? Apply and get into my top choice, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I remember calling Dad to tell him. I was so excited. I remember the pain I felt when he said “Khurt, remember. There will always be people smarter than you.” It had bugged me for many years. Was he not proud of me? Why was he putting me down? The UoM is one of the top ten graduate electrical engineering programs in the USA.
I arrived at the UoM with just a return plane ticket in my pocket. Mom had given me some money for food and bus transport. On my own, I had to find my way from the Detroit airport to Ann Arbor, find my way around campus to find housing, and the next day, I saw the student loan office. I figured it out. Winter was rough. I shared a two-room suite with a man from Puerto Rico who’s English was not significant. My Spanish was below elementary. Two years of studying alone. I made only a handful of friends in those two years.
The competition in graduate school was intense. The days and nights studying were lonely. The other students, especially the ones from China, Singapore and India, were scoring much better than me, requiring me to work harder to get a good grade. I had to work just as hard to keep up. But I made it. I focused on my goal and worked hard at it. On Graduation Day, watching my father and mother seated among the other parents, I think I finally understood what my father meant when he said, “There will always be someone smarter than you”. They were HIS words of encouragement. “through hardship to the stars”.
I got married, and Dad was there.
When we bought our home in New Jersey in 2001, he warned us “Something is not right in the USA market. Get a regular 30-year mortgage.“ He predicted the housing market crisis of 2008.
Shaan, our first child, attended a family reunion at my grandfather’s home in Akron, Ohio when just two months old.
I had my second child, Kiran, and Dad was there.
“Don’t buy a new car, by the second hand. A new car depreciates as soon as you drive, but you still have to pay the bank for the depreciation.”
“Don’t trust banks with expensive building with marble and granite. That’s your money they’re spending.“
I miss Dad. I miss his voice. I miss his words of encouragement, even when I don’t always understand them.
I wish I could write more about his early life before marriage and kids. I don’t know that part of Dad’s life. But I’ll leave that up to his brother and sisters to write.
A family friend, Tony Hadley, provided a link to his website which filled in the gaps in my knowledge of my father’s career at Barclays Bank, PLC on Halifax Street, Kingstown, St. Vincent, West Indies. The memories are those of Cheryl (Phillis) King from 1963-1965, the very early days at Barclays Bank and decades before the merger with Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) to form CIBC FirstCaribbean International Bank. Dad was at Barclays Bank right up to the end of the merger, then stayed on as a consultant to the new merger for a few more years. Dad worked at Barclays for over 38 years.
The recent announcement of the proposed merger of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) with Barclays Bank PLC resulting in a new company to be called the “FirstCaribbean International Bank” caused a flash-back to the Barclays Bank of 1963-1965 (D.C.O then, which meant Dominion Colonial Overseas).
I remember this time-frame as a period of fun-filled camaraderie and for many, an introduction to the work-force. At first, the female employees wore a uniform consisting of white blouses and grey skirts. This was later changed to white blouses and navy blue skirts. The hours were 7:45 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Wednesdays & Saturdays were half-days. I think the business with the public ended at noon with lunch 12:00-1:00 p.m. Half-year and end of the year meant that those days would be longer.
When Bank Inspectors from England visited, it was a busy time. There were sub-branches of Barclays in Georgetown and Bequia and employees from Kingstown, Halifax Street went to these destinations and transacted business on certain days of the week. Barclays Bank, Royal Bank of Canada and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce were the major commercial banks in the country.
“Beach-combers” across the street, owned by Mr Gibbons was a great place to have a banana-split as well as other delicacies while engaging in friendly conversation.
Congratulations to Cooper Williams for holding down the fort all of these years. It’s been a long time. Without Barclays per se (with the merger it would become part of FirstCaribbean International Bank) it is truly the end of an era specifically concerning banking in SVG and the Caribbean.Cheryl “Phillis” King, I Remember Barclays (1963-1965)