My Trinidad summer had just started and was about to kick into high gear. Then it happened. Professor Emeritus K.O. Laurence. Historian, writer, and teacher par excellence. Eminent scholar. Walking, living, breathing library of Caribbean History. As genuine a friend as you could ever desire. A man of his word. A man who wrote with a turn of phrase firmly rooted in Victorian flair (who uses expressions like “pulchritude quotient” or “the dearth of excellence” on a daily anymore?), but he wrote with that very touch of wry humor evident in the works of P.G. Wodehouse. If it is that he walked unseeingly past you, or looked straight through you, it is not because he was elitist or arrogant, but that he was more interested in the many exciting things going on in his own head. He was probably thinking ahead, organizing his day and the next day or week. He was not one to let a moment go by idly. He told you the truth about yourself however sharp the sting. If you didn’t want to hear the truth, then you knew not to ask him what he thought because he would tell you, and it was not always pretty. He would not hesitate to write in your recommendation that you are “indubitably less brilliant than you think you are.” He most certainly did not suffer fools gladly. Sure glad I wasn’t counted among the latter!
He taught the West Indian History course mandatory for all history majors. If you made the grave error of showing up for his lecture one minute after the scheduled time, you’d find him there already lecturing; one minute after the scheduled ending time – and he would have already left. He picked one spot on the back wall and lectured to that. You took notes – diligently – because for sure he expected you to know everything when you came to his small group tutorials. His course work assignments were essays, briefly and succinctly phrased. Although he had a vocabulary that boggled the mind and would give Roget pause, he neither believed in wasting words nor mincing them. He had little respect for people who butchered the English language, misspelt words, or wallowed in neologisms or malapropisms. Heaven help you if you missed or overshot a word by one consonant and wrote about “The Development of the Pleasantry” instead of the “peasantry” (which some actually did). For those unfortunate miscreants, he would wonder out loud in that neat, clipped penmanship of his (almost like calligraphy) whether “writing this essay, for you, was just another pleasantry.” He cringed at the abuse of commas, at the failure to recognize the difference between a colon and a semi-colon, at sentences that lacked a finite verb, as at arguments replete with syllogisms and non sequitur fallacies, and above all, at split infinitives and sentences that ended with prepositions or prepositional phrases.
In many ways he was a Caribbean Winston Churchill. He had little time for people whose IQs fell well short of his. As one of our colleagues aptly observed, “If you got an ‘A’ from him, you could consider yourself a genius.” But if you did get an ‘A’ or ‘near A’ from him, prepare yourself to be stopped and complimented on the corridor just when you thought he would pass you by in his usual blinkered fashion. And then he would target you in his tutorials expecting you to know all the answers and always be on point. And you did not dare disappoint when those piercing eagle eyes were peering unwavering at you from atop those black-rimmed glasses.
At the beginning of the semester, he handed you the coursework assignment sheet with each essay carrying its own deadline – 4 PM on the day in question if your essay was not in his hand at that time, you had to abandon that essay and begin researching one with a later deadline. At 4:01 PM your essay would not be accepted even if you were his own mother. The inveterate procrastinator that I am, of course, I found myself researching almost every essay topic on that sheet before succeeding in meeting two 4:00PM deadlines. That was how I came to learn so much West Indian History and am now able to teach it with ease today. So the fact that I not only received ‘A’s and ‘near As’ from him but also his request that I apply for a postgraduate scholarship, his persistent follow up to see that I did, and his advocacy efforts on my behalf to ensure that I got it, I knew I had to have been intellectually gifted in some externally referenced and recognizable way. I did not take the charge lightly and still do not, although procrastination is still the death of me. His passing has sharpened my resolve not to disappoint.
As I became a graduate student elsewhere, much to his dismay, which he did not hesitate to express, he maintained contact with me encouraging me through my graduate programs toward completion. I came to look forward to those blue airmail letters and that unique handwriting which came to me like encapsulated doses of many-hour energy potions. Through it all he never let me forget how upset he was that I had turned down the UWI postgraduate scholarship in favor for the Manitoba Graduate Fellowship, but he never failed to buoy me up, encourage me, and reiterate his faith in my “exceptional abilities” which I failed to see but trusted his word since he was indisputably a man who knew his onions.
And then I became a colleague in his department. I soon realized he was far from the unapproachable, standoffish guy that students thought he was who looked down his nose at the masses. He couldn’t help it that he had an aquiline nose and a pair of glasses that slid half way down it, such that his steely blue gaze always angled just above their elevation, now could he? His sense of humor, however quirky, came to the fore. He’d make a remark or drop a comment, a seemingly innocent one to the untrained and less-endowed mind, then he’d follow it up with that devilish snicker which made me sure he was probably quite the family Dennis the Menace as a child.
Keith was a man of surprises. Somehow it would never occur to you to match his seemingly forbidding exterior with owning a red roll-top sports car or dancing all night to calypso and soca, or dropping down into a sweet Trini dialect when the occasion called for it. A man of rare taste and exquisite sophistication, a fine dining and afternoon High Tea scones and crumpets sort of man, and also a bake ‘n’ shark or nuke-your-own leftovers kind of guy, as comfortable with Amaretto as with a Cuba Libre although his favorite was good Scotch. He was a “Trini to de Bone” eternally dedicated to his land and his people, to enjoying every aspect of his Trinbago culture, able to interact with his countrymen of every class and ethnic persuasion. While he loved to travel, he never went first class, and his first commitment was to see all of the Caribbean about which he considered himself an expert and about which he taught in his history classes. Quite unlike me, he never missed a Caribbean historian’s (ACH) Conference – well, except for the last two as a result of his restricted movements from the debilitating effects of scoliosis. Despite his recent physical limitations, his mind always soared to heights many can only visit in their remotest dreams. He was a tall man indeed, less in physical stature than in character. A real gentleman if ever there was one.
He is gone. And I received the news in the worst possible way – someone announced it “en passant” to the person with whom I was knee-deep in conversation that morning. And I was just about to call him, to go visit, as I had promised so faithfully in my last communication. As my mother would have said, “If you chook me, you wouldn’t have found any blood.” A good man, who, once you got to know him, would surprise you with how down to earth he was. He was indeed an institution, one of a kind; they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Yes. KO is gone. Why him? I wondered, in profound grief. But even as I lamented, I knew that such an independent, self-assured spirit would not have wanted to go on given the severe physical limitations with which he labored in his last days. He would have wanted to let go, and I’m sure he did, just by thinking it into reality with the power of a mind like his. So who am I to lament his passing into a realm of painlessness, unrestricted movement, and unadulterated freedom? His lying there, as composed, regal, and powerful in death as he was in life, gave me comfort, and allowed me the strength and permission I sought to let go. I picked up the shattered pieces of my grief and folded them away as neatly as he would have done with those pieces of paper reminders he always carried to compensate for his failing memory. Except that I did not have a shirt-jac pocket in which to place them. So I will just have to carry around his memory with me everywhere I go. He will be alive with me always. With Keith, an historic era passed out of existence.
And if I wasn’t sure, there’s the passing of my sister, aunt and mother, plus the retirement of some of my other mentors: Jim, Bridget, KAPS, James, and Selwyn. Going to the History Department at Spelman College will never be the same. Going home will never be the same for me. Going to Valpark Chinese, Muscovado, Kapok, Veni Mange or Apsara will never be the same. Going to the second floor FHE building at UWI St. Augustine will never be the same. Going to Fletcher Argue at U of M where the History Department resides will never be the same. Going to Washington DC and to Howard U. History Department will never be the same. The landscape that held the familiar is rapidly disappearing. One must adjust but adjustment is never easy. In many ways, my mind, heart and sentiments still dwell in the house of yesterday and I must eventually follow. But in the mean time, there’s the last leg left to run. A relay is never complete without the anchor lap, and that is reserved for the swiftest, the most agile, the best -- targets that keep moving in an ever-changing course sans the accustomed fixed milestone markers. It is a race not against those running in the other lanes on either side of you, but an individual race of completion, of discharging that to which you have been entrusted and assigned. The water stations are all gone and I must advance to cross the finish line alone, but in the distance somewhere over an ethereal horizon and beyond a boundary, I can still hear them urging me on.