The Stuff of Greatness
Roy Lewis, also known as “Mystic Prowler” or “Mighty Prowler”, was a Vincentian born Trinidadian calypsonian who was crowned the Calypso King of Trinidad and Tobago in 1998 with the song “Look Beneath the Surface.”
Lewis’ calypso reminds us that a full appreciation of greatness often requires us to look beyond the surface.
Lewis’ song makes reference to Thomas Edison, the American inventor and businessman famous for inventing the phonograph (record player), and his contributions to improving the incandescent light bulb in the 1870’s.
Many people remember Edison’s end products but forget what obtained beneath the surface. Lewis’ calypso noted that Edison failed 2000 times before his light bulb would switch on. Often forgotten as well is that Edison was totally hearing impaired in one ear and was barely able to hear in the other. Rather than seeing his hearing impairment as an impediment, Edison credited it with helping him to avoid distraction and concentrate more easily on his work. Lewis concluded that Thomas Edison “had the stuff that great men are made of,” which we could miss unless we “look below the surface.”
Listening to persons eulogise former Vincentian Prime Minister, Sir James Mitchell, a week ago brought back the words of Lewis’ calypso and further caused me to reflect on the meaning of greatness. For all of my childhood and almost all of my adolescent years, Sir James was the only Prime Minister that I knew.
There were two encounters with him which solidified for me part of what existed beneath his surface. First, as a kid, I recall Sir James passing through my village of Coull’s Hill on his way to a funeral in Chateaubelair. As his vehicle entered the village, an alarm was raised that the Prime Minister was passing through and I rushed to the side of the road to get a glimpse of the man. What stood out for me was that he was accompanied only by his driver, and he sat in the back, seemingly relaxed, and as I waved, he waved back with a smile. That moment made my day.
My second encounter with Sir James came when I was in my late teens and by then, he was no longer the Prime Minister. I was standing in line at Karib Cable when he entered and with no fuss, joined the line and waited his turn. These two encounters with Sir James suggested to me that beneath the surface of his greatness resided a tremendous amount of humility.
No one can erase Sir James from Vincentian, Caribbean and world history.
A small minority of people go on to lead their countries and he happens to be the second longest serving Prime Minister in Vincentian history who did much to set the country on a path of post-colonial development. He was a pivotal figure in the quest for Caribbean unity. He was also a global statesman who championed democracy.
Dr. Ralph Gonsalves and Dr. Keith Mitchell, Prime Ministers of St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique respectively, also shared words which gave a glimpse of what was beneath Sir James’ surface. Notwithstanding their epic political battles, Dr. Gonsalves spoke of his and Sir James’ friendship and mutual respect. Dr. Mitchell recalled the several occasions when both directly and indirectly, Sir James asked that he (Dr. Mitchell) speaks at his (Sir James’) funeral.
My other enduring memory of Sir James revolves around what was a clear political miscalculation when in 2000, his government introduced a bill in Parliament to increase salaries and benefits for parliamentarians shortly after denying civil servants salary increases. This helped to hasten his departure from office and remains a blot on what was an otherwise stellar political career.
What then is the stuff of greatness? In Sir James’ case, it would appear that humility, bonds of friendship and respect, even with and for opponents, as well as an awareness of one’s own mortality, go a far way.
Sir James Mitchell’s greatness can also be found in something that we all share, that is, our humanity. To be human is also to be imperfect.
However, to be great is to transcend those imperfections.