I first met Owen Everard James in 2012 during the 50th Anniversary reunion of the Mico Independence Batch of 1962. I was then Chancellor of Mico University College (MUC). It was at that reunion the idea of a vehicle to raise funds on a sustained basis for the benefit of MUC was born. The idea became Owen’s vision and resulted in the incorporation of The Mico University College Foundation of America. Since then, I have been able to witness segments of Owen’s journey as chief advocate and benefactor of MUCFA. Owen’s commitment and focus on the achievement of his mission to raise funds in the diaspora for the benefit of the University College, and financial assistance for needy students are exemplary. The establishment of the James Endowment Fund, one of the funds of MUCFA, through a bequest of US$$50,000.00 from him is tangible evidence of his commitment to inspire continued support for The Mico beyond the lifetime of donors to MUCFA.
I met Owen for the second time in 2015 when he led the endeavor to resolve some technical legal issues to incorporate MUCFA as a non-profit foundation of the United States with Mico as part of its name. The Articles of MUCFA presented a legal problem with international and institutional dimensions since The Lady Mico Trust owns the Mico Brand internationally, and Mico cannot be used in the name of any legal entity without the written consent of the Trust.
The Mico Old Students Association (MOSA) was established in 1922 under Jamaica law and with the permission of Lady Mico Charity. MOSA is the legally established alumni organization of graduates of the Mico. MOSA has Chapters in New York, Toronto, South Florida, and Georgia. MOSA New York Chapter, founded in 1975, was one of seventeen alumni associations that initiated the Union of Jamaican Alumni Associations Inc, incorporated in 1990. The Chapter also holds the 501-c3 tax exemption status which allows individuals to receive tax credits for charitable donations, also a feature of MUCFA. However, the Mico University College Foundation of America is not an alumni association although most members are Miconians. Uniquely, MUFCA has recaptured and included a category of persons, known as Friends of the Mico, who have contributed to the advancement of the college in myriad ways since 1836. These included descendants and relatives of Miconians, former members of staff, and their descendants, and persons with no connection to the college but who embrace its mission. A most prominent member of this category was Eli Matalon who Chaired the Mico Board of Directors in the 1960s and subsequently was elected to the Jamaican Parliament and appointed Minister of Education.
MUCFA is a not-for-profit limited liability company, and so is The Mico Foundation, registered in 1980 under Jamaica’s Company Act. The membership and board of the Mico Foundation include nominees of the Lady Mico Trust, MOSA, and the Board of Directors of the Mico University College in equal proportions. The Lady Mico Trust and the Mico Foundation are the joint owners of the Mico University College.
The Lady Mico Trust found itself in a bit of a quandary to include MUCFA into the Mico family of organizations. To attempt to amend the legal instruments of the Lady Mico Trust, MOSA, and the Mico Foundation would be tedious, problematic, and costly, making this option impractical. However, MUFCA complements and adds value to the continued survival of The Mico. The most prudent, timely, and effective resolution of the quandary was for the Lady Mico Trust to consent to the incorporation of MUCFA on the condition that it included the Chairman of the Mico Foundation as a member of its Board of Directors and agreed to collaborate with the Mico Foundation to ensure coordination of efforts to sustain, enhance, and advance the Mico University College.
The ease, speed, and principled way Owen accepted and acted to convince his colleagues left no doubt whatsoever that the vision and motive that inspired him was not self-projection but altruism for the advancement of his alma mater. MUCFA was duly incorporated and obtained its IRS tax-exempt status in July 2017.
I got better acquainted with Owen after he contacted me in 2019 concerning a project being planned to fill a void in the narrative of the history of secondary education in Jamaica. The project was to document the experimental secondary school classes of 1954 to 1960 established by Minister of Education Edwin Allen, and their impact on the lives of students of these classes. He had read Jamaican Society and High Schooling which mentioned this project. Owen wanted to know if I would consider writing the Foreword.
After a short stint in teaching Owen’s career had been in business at the executive level in companies in the Caribbean, Canada, Eastern and Southern Africa, and the United States. What he was proposing to do in this project was new and radical. The Experimental Secondary School Classes involved about 250 elementary school students, between 11 and 12 years, who were selected by merit to be members of the classes. These students received five years of secondary schooling, leading to the Senior Cambridge Secondary School Certificate, at elementary schools that normally ended at the equivalent of Grade 9. The schools selected were All Saints, Central Branch, Half-Way Tree, and May Pen All-Age schools, the Mico Practicing School, and Kingston Senior School. Owen proposed to locate these 250 students 60 years after they had completed their secondary education and to have them tell their individual stories of the impact the Experimental classes had on their lives. Owen was proposing a longitudinal study of Jamaican secondary schooling authored by the participants. This was history and research the likes of which has not been previously undertaken. Yet, Owen’s focus and preoccupation were the Experimental Classes and not the visionary pioneering exercise he was undertaking. Owen seemed almost oblivious to this fact. He was breaking new ground intuitively.
This was an invitation I could not refuse. Owen had invited me to a front seat in a new theater of learning about Jamaica’s education. I had received my elementary education at Central Branch and Half-Way-Tree All Ages schools and went to Calabar High School in years that overlapped with the Experimental Classes. In other words, I was an unplanned member of the control group of the Experimental Classes. Moreover, I had been principal of the Mico College and chairperson of the Board of the Mico Practicing School. In addition, I had been taught by many of the teachers who taught the Experimental Classes or who were held as icons of the teaching profession at the start of my career as a teacher. I had personal knowledge by which to verify the authenticity, or lack thereof, of what would be written. Owen did not know this and was more than comfortable when our exchanges revealed this. Owen was about the truth, not grandstanding.
The only study that came close to what Owen was embarking on was by Professor Vivienne Roberts of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, a past student of Ferncourt High School. Professor Roberts had been invited to do the study as part of the school’s 80th Anniversary in 2018. This study sampled and surveyed past students of Ferncourt over its 80-year existence. In contrast, Owen was undertaking personal follow-up of students of the classes which was a single-year group across six schools.
“Our Story: Jamaica’s Visionary Experimental Secondary Classes 1954 – 1960” published and launched in 2021 is a treasure trove of new perspectives in understanding and appreciating Jamaican education that includes and goes beyond student academic achievement, teacher effectiveness, education policy, party politics, and project implementation. Our Story tells of life-changing episodes, lifelong friendships, shared outlooks, different influences, and divergent acknowledgment of being past students of these classes. It opens windows into the lives of real people sixty years after being selected by merit to receive secondary education. Implicitly it proposes the hypothesis that the school class may be as important as the school in learning and socialization. In other words, maintaining the integrity of the school class had long-term implications beyond curriculum content. This is of particular relevance in the COVID era of education. Hopefully, the members of experimental classes who are yet to tell their stories will come forward for Volumes 2 and 3.
Further, I would make a special plea to locate more students of the Class of May Pen All-Age School who were forerunners of the policy to use performance in the Grade Nine Achievement Test to place students in High Schools. At the time of the experimental classes, the Headteacher of May Pen All-Age was legendary Teacher Edgar Whiteman, father of former teacher icon and Minister of Education Burchell Whiteman and Eta Whiteman former principal of Westwood High School. May Pen All-Age was the only school outside of Kingston and St Andrew that was included in the experiment. It would be interesting to see if there were differences in outcomes. Edited by Johnathan Goodrich and Owen James ‘Our Story’ is a legacy that will continue to pay substantial dividends of understanding for years to come.
In the friendship that developed, as were spoke more frequently on the telephone I came to discover the exceptional human being that Owen Everard James was. He was a distinguished author of poetry and prose. A successful business executive. A philanthropist. A friend of many, some of whom we shared. A husband is still passionately in love with his wife after more than fifty years. A father to many more than his two sons. A doting grandfather. A world traveler. An avid golfer. An exemplary member of the communities in which he lived. An archive of first-hand experiences that illuminated discussions by bringing them from abstraction to concrete reality. Owen really cared about people. He was ethical and moral. Surprisingly, he had a sore spot about religion, although most of his close friends were religious. As he shared increasingly of his formative years in Jamaica, I teased him about being a Moravian Christian in denial. He answered with silence.
Owen’s sudden illness was a shock. It was an interruption of a close friendship that had just begun. His death months later left deep sadness. There would be no resumption following the interruption. Owen’s funeral on February 19, 2022, led to tears as well as grateful thanks. I have been to hundreds of funeral services but that of Owen Everard James is the most beautiful, most tasteful, and most authentic celebration of anyone’s life I have ever been to or watched. I learned discovered much more about Owen than he had told me about himself. With nonchalant grace and easy elegance Icilda (Icy) his wife, Gregory and Gordon James, sons, other family members, and several friends documented a comprehensive portrayal of Owen’s life through spoken recollections and video clips. Seeing him on the dance floor showed that I had only learned a fraction about the man.
On reflection Owen Everard James was a poet who lived his verses, none more expressive than ‘Alice,’ his depiction of meeting Icy on the telephone before ever seeing her, and the phrase ‘love at first voice’. Brackets: A Book of Poems, published in 2013, speaks to the soul.
Professor Emeritus the Hon. Errol Miller