I AM ONE of the lucky ones. Thirty-five years ago, I opened a door and walked into the most incredible life you could ever imagine courtesy Owen Baptiste, who was then the editor-in-chief of the Trinidad Express. To this day, I don’t know why he decided to take a chance on making me a journalist, but I cherished that day more than ever when OB celebrated his 85th birthday on May 27.
Becoming a journalist had never once crossed my mind. Writer Earl Lovelace had suggested it when I took his creative writing class at the University of the West Indies. He said he would stand referee for me so I submitted a resume to the Express, which had nothing much on it except that very special recommendation from a great writer and a note I had been a technical writer at Boeing Commercial Airplane Company in Seattle.
On the first day I stopped to check if OB had received my interview, he descended the steps of the old cocoa house where the Express once operated. “I can’t talk to you now,” he said, “but I do want to have an interview with you.”
I thought I was getting the royal brush-off, but he told me to make an appointment.
I headed for my interview in a long-sleeved, cotton, embroidered black dress, which I thought made me look quite smart. I wore spike high heels, which sunk into the asphalt making me feel glued to Port of Spain. That interview plays like a movie in my mind. OB shuffled papers and kept asking, “Why should I take a chance on you?”
I kept saying, “Because I love to write, and Mr Lovelace believes in me.” I wanted that chance with all my heart.
In the middle of the interview, OB watched my black dress and said, “Are you going to a funeral after this?” But nothing riled me on that day.
The first day of work was another story. I soon learned that OB set high standards for writing. His probation period proved brutal. He could roar like a lion and laugh like a hyena. Many reporters bit the dust. If he took in seven trainees, two might last. Ria Taitt was in my batch.
A summons into OB’s glass office in the newsroom meant having to gulp down fear. His praise for a story made you feel on top of the world. He liked offbeat stories like the feature I wrote about Carnival with a parenthetical statement in almost every sentence. It got my point across about how Carnival functioned.
When he sent me on a story to interview squatters in Caroni, and they cussed me out, I knew I couldn’t return without a story. So I wrote one with the first letter of the cuss word and a set of blanks. He said it was “brilliant.” It conveyed the anger and ignorance that was going on. I got a buff for “A boxer is like a baby,” a story I loved about Trinidad boxer Leslie Stewart.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You took an excellent story and killed it because 85 cm is too long. It shouldn’t have been longer than 60. No one read that story.”
Highly critical, but always fair, OB taught me to make people the focus of every story. In the newspaper office, I honed my skills in writing biographies, at a time when you had to write a quick biography for a deceased public figure with nothing but the fat files of cutout newspaper articles along with articles tapping their way into the newsroom’s teleprinter.
I remembered those lessons while writing history out of biographical essays in my latest book, Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the US.
Most of all, I remember how OB always had a journalist’s back. Once, someone complained that I had misquoted him, and OB sternly said something like, “You idiot, she asked you the same question five different ways.”
He created strong women journalists like Niala Maharaj, Suzanne Lopez, Camini Marajh and two of the daily newspaper’s current editors-in-chief, Omatie Lyder of the Trinidad Express and Judy Raymond of Newsday.
There is no one in this world I respect more than OB. Because of him, women journalists learned to be strong and caring professionals in what was then a man’s world. I feel certain I can speak for all of us when I say, “OB, we are forever grateful for the wisdom, support and the exciting life you gave us.”