Mon | Sep 26, 2022

EDITORIAL - Rex Nettleford: a life of exceptional service

Published:Thursday | February 4, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The late Professor Ralston 'Rex' Nettleford, vice-chancellor emeritus of the University of the West Indies, Caribbean man of letters and wisdom, was well known for his mastery of the English language. Witnessing the frequent use of the word 'icon' to describe persons deemed to have achieved in some field of endeavour or other, he cautioned that in time everyone could be an icon, and we would be hard put to find words to describe really outstanding examples of excellence. He never saw himself as 'an icon'.

Now that the time has come to pay tribute to this truly amazing Jamaican-born scholar, teacher, cultural activist, nationalist, historian and author, to mention but a few of his attributes, the word icon does seem insufficient. In its original definition, an icon is a treasured religious object. In contemporary times, it is also defined as one having some well-known significance, or embodying certain qualities. Rex Nettleford was all that and more, whether he cared to admit it or not.

It is hard to choose which area of accomplishment makes Professor Nettleford most deserving of the respect and admiration which he has earned over the years. His capacity for outstanding scholarship was demonstrated throughout his personal career, from elementary school in deep rural Bunker's Hill, Trelawny, to Cornwall College, then the University College of the West Indies from where he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. There he excelled not only in academics but in the performing arts.

University times

Back home, he joined the staff of the university and under the tutelage of the eminent Sir Philip Sherlock, he became tutor in the Extra Mural Department, taking the message of life-long learning throughout the entire Caribbean. This had a profound effect on him, heightening the realisation of what it meant to be a citizen not just of his native Jamaica but the wider region. His advancement through the university system led him eventually to the top, becoming vice-chancellor and then, on retirement, vice-chancellor emeritus. He gave to the latter designation the same energies as he did while in full-time service, dedicating himself to connecting UWI alumni to their alma mater and fund-raising for development.

Throughout all the years and the many responsibilities, he added to his considerable workload, service to his country and the region, as an impartial adviser to prime ministers and leaders of civil society. His skills also benefited the Common-wealth of Canada, which sought out his participation in plotting their nation's path into a new age. He represented Jamaica at UNESCO where he was highly respected for his acumen and passion, especially for righting the wrongs of slavery. He became a lecturer of renown on the international circuit. Honours and accolades poured in from far and wide and he took them all in his stride.

dance his greatest passion

His greatest passion was the National Dance Theatre Company which he co-founded with Eddy Thomas in the year of Jamaica's entry into nationhood and built it into an institution respected at home and abroad. With all that, he still found time for acts of quiet altruism, assisting a new generation of young persons to acquire advanced education, among them, worker-delegates in the trade-union movement.

Rex Nettleford was blessed with unbounding energy, belying his advancing years. He was a man for all seasons, a man of high ideals, committed to the service to fellow human beings, generous in spirit, consumed with a desire for excellence. The fruits of his endeavours are to be seen far and wide and will remain monuments to inspire generations to come. Was he an icon? Perhaps, but this is not a time for semantics. It is sufficient say, in the words of a popular song: "He was simply the best - better than all the rest."

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.