Mon | Apr 6, 2020

The Gleaner under Sealy

Published:Sunday | November 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
The Gleaner Company Limited building.-Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer
Theodore Sealy

Ewart Walters, Contributor

His friends called him Ted. The Government called him often.

We called him "the Bull." Among ourselves, that is.

To his face, he was "Sir," or "Mr Sealy." And our application of the bovine term was a respectful - if slightly fearful - acknowledgement of his power. But, if you did your work and didn't mess up, you had nothing to fear. For Theodore Sealy was fair.

The bull has long been an important symbol in many cultures. In the Jamaica of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Theodore Sealy symbolised power pretty much at the level of premier, prime minister or opposition leader. He was often invited to be guest speaker at functions with a national tone. And his editorials were rich, easy to read, grammatically pure and trenchant.

A shade under six feet, he was a big man. His dress always included a pair of braces (suspenders) for he never wore a belt. His long-sleeve shirts were adorned with a little extendable metal garter on the arm to keep them from showing too long beyond the end of the jacket sleeve. He only wore a jacket when he had to leave the office.

In the early days, like his colleague, Osmond Theodore Fairclough at Public Opinion, he often wore a drill suit of khaki, discarding that for tropical suits of grey as time wore on.

But on Saturdays, the Sabbath of The Gleaner's owners, and only a half-day of work for government workers at the time, he would arrive at the office mid-morning, unshaven and in short sleeves. About an hour later he would leave us, returning just before press time, around 9.30 at night. And he would ask, "everything alright?" before leaving again for home about a half hour later. He was not a churchman but on Sundays he did not come in at all.

He used to travel in a Gleaner car with a designated driver, which would convey him to and from work and wherever he wanted to go, the same Gleaner car that would take reporters to their assignments. And when The Gleaner Company finally gave him a car, it was a Ford Anglia, the smallest car available in Jamaica at the time.

If The Gleaner made Theodore Sealy, it is perhaps even more true to say Theodore Sealy made The Gleaner. It was already 95 years old by the time he got there in 1928 as a 19-year-old and he spent the rest of his working life there, rising to the top position of editor in the '50s, and taking on the title of editor-in-chief around the end of the '60s when, in preparation for the day he would retire, The Gleaner changed its editorial structure to create an executive editor, giving that position to the chief parliamentary reporter Ulric Simmonds.

As it happened, The Gleaner retired Simmonds before Sealy left, and that brought in Rhodes Scholar, diplomat UWI administrator and former Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) education minister of state, Hector Wynter, to replace him as executive editor and understudy Sealy.


This was not to be an easy task. Sealy's shoes were big.

The Gleaner ran like a well-oiled machine under Sealy. If there was any fight between management and editorial, whether under Sydney Gerald Fletcher or Tom Sherman, we never heard of it. The Gleaner had managed to fight off all competition and, king of the roost, was in the business of making its position even more secure.

This it did handily. Under Una Marson, The Pioneer Press had already been established by The Gleaner Company to provide a vehicle for new writers, and to this Sealy added The Star and The Children's Own newspapers, both of which appeared around the beginning of the '50s.

One of the continuing contentions among the descendants of White privilege and Black slavery is the interplay of race and colour. And this is paraded visibly and volubly during and after beauty contests with the oft-repeated claim that "she no favour the majority o' we," and that we are selecting a 'White' stereotype of beauty.

As the editor of all Gleaner Company publications, Sealy felt he had to do something about this and so he arranged a national beauty contest under the heading 'Ten types - One Beauty.' The ten types included such names as 'Miss Apple Blossom' and 'Miss Ebony' along with eight others in a fascinating depiction of the range of the ethnic beauty that is Jamaican.

Hugely successful, the competition was publicised and run through the Star newspaper and it succeeded in popularising that afternoon Gleaner Company product, and toning down the beauty contest dissatisfaction.

With pre-Independence jitters pulsating through the island as people were confronted with the thought of no longer having England running things, mass migration was beginning. The banana boats, Windrush, Bayano and Jamaica Producer taking Jamaican bananas to English ports, now made room for passengers and thousands of people, mostly from rural Jamaica, left for 'The Motherland', settling mainly in London and Birmingham.

Ever alert to the possibilities, Sealy then started the Weekly Gleaner to keep emigrant Jamaicans informed of what was happening in their homeland. Prepared in Jamaica as a compendium of the local news of the past week, the publication became a hot seller and was extended to the USA and Canada. As former Assistant Editor Calvin Bowen would say, "The Gleaner grew in character and influence."

Sealy's first major call from the Bustamante JLP government saw him taking on the chairmanship of the committee to celebrate 300 years of British rule in 1955. But with his eyes set on the emergent Independence and the unity it would require, he refused to take up the position until they agreed to his demand that his colleague O.T. Fairclough, editor of the People's National Party (PNP)-associated newspaper Public Opinion, be added to the committee.

It was a no-brainer then, that his second major call was to chair the Independence Committee, this time from Norman Manley's PNP government. Both events were universally seen as hugely successful. Many were the committees on which he sat over the years that contributed to national growth.

Sealy, who was later to sit on a UWI committee that created CARIMAC, wanted The Gleaner to grow but there was no training for journalists in Jamaica and so he created at The Gleaner a trainee journalists programme that began with an advertisement inviting people to apply for the post of trainee journalist. Applicants were then required to sit an examination which he wrote himself and the successful ones would be taken on as junior reporters.

By the beginning of the '60s Sealy had added a Farm Desk under the veteran Percy Miller, which led to the publication of the Farmer's Weekly. A Western Bureau had been taking shape and he strengthened it with more staff and a trained bureau chief.

Now with Independence a reality and Cabinet government in full flow, he saw the need to establish his own reporting cabinet. In addition to the sports desk and farm desk and a string of correspondents around the island, he now added specialists for Health (Sybil Thompson), Court (Sybil Hibbert), Prime Minister's Office (Sylvia Lee), Education (Vivien Carrington - later Ewart Walters), and Labour (Ken Allen).

The parliamentary reporting team under Simmonds included Ken Allen, Vivien Carrington, Ewart Walters and Claude Robinson. Every Sunday, there would be a major article from at least one, and often two, of these specialist reporters written from their beats or portfolios. There was also a social desk where the reporters included Barbara Gloudon, Olive Senior and Myrthe Swire.

With this in place, the Sunday

Gleaner became the cream of The Gleaner publications with circulation figures up to the mid 80,000 readers. The Daily Gleaner too showed a steady rise in readership over this period.

The Gleaner had also taken over the job of Hansard reporting from the Government Printing Office and this team, led by Sybil Thompson, included, at various times, Sybil Hibbert. Sylvia Lee, Madge Cole, Millie Fisher, George John and Lloyd Russell, all of whom were adept at shorthand writing.

It was under Sealy that The Gleaner began hosting the annual Spelling Bee competition. Sealy himself along with Clifton Neita presided over the early ones and then Barbara Gloudon took it over.

Sealy was originally lukewarm to the arrival of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and bauxite mining. His position on UWI before the '70s could best be seen in his editorial 'Cave Mona' which was published in the immediate wake of the Walter Rodney uprisings on the campus. This antipathy was to change.

His opposition to the bauxite industry, though, was based on his view that its very attractive salaries would end up having a negative impact on national growth largely by inducing so many farmers out of farming.

He presided over The Gleaner's move from Harbour Street to North Street in 1969 but somehow, despite now having a private office as well as a desk at the top of the general editorial room, he never seemed quite as comfortable there as at the old place. It could be that he saw the shadows of his departure creeping up.

Theodore Sealy always looked ahead. He knew the disposition of his company's owners was to be supportive of the JLP but he himself looked at the emerging nation and steered clear of partisanship.

On the day of Norman Manley's funeral at National Heroes Park, he was in the office. Unusual, for it was a Sunday, and he never came in on Sundays. The reporters covering the funeral were at various places - at the church, along the funeral route and at the graveside in the park. I was not one of them. I was in the office.

Sealy came and entered his office, just two blocks south of the burial site. He sat there with his thoughts for a long while. He knew that contrary to his own feelings, his principals at the powerful century-old Gleaner had long opposed self-government and many of the things Norman Manley stood for.

But now as he contemplated the future without Norman Manley, those thoughts receded. Jamaica's new day which had taken one unexpected turn with the 1962 elections had now taken another and there was no playbook, no coach, no guiding hand.

Then, as the afternoon sun dipped almost reluctantly towards the Sligoville hills, throwing sad lengthening purple shadows over National Heroes Park, Sealy gathered himself, rose from his thoughts, left his office and entered the general editorial office. Once there, he did something entirely without precedent or repetition.

Instructing the assembled editorial staff to stand, he told us simply that a great man was being buried today.

With that, he presided over a minute's silence in honour of the former premier. And then he turned away and walked back into his office, the tears finally starting down his face.

A former Gleaner staffer, Ewart Walters is a prize-winning journalist and author. The last four paragraphs of this article are reproduced from his latest book, 'We Come From Jamaica - The National Movement 1937-1962' which was the subject of the symposium '1938 and Beyond' at SALISES, UWI, Mona, on Wednesday, October 15.