When I first began working at the Express, my developing reputation as a journalist became intertwined with the late journalist and features editor Deborah John.
It didn’t take long for me to discover a profound respect for Deborah, who defied the norm of the boisterous, high-strung journalist in a newsroom where objects sometimes flew through the air. I am not joking. There actually were times when we really had to dodge missiles.
Deborah, always cool-headed and calm, often served as a peacemaker in that energy-charged environment. I never once saw her angry, flustered or judgmental. I remember her as one of the most open-minded and accepting journalists I have ever known.
On the other hand, I was a bundle of nerves, unsure of myself and always frustrated that I couldn’t seem to establish an identity as a journalist. I had been writing under the name Deborah Jacob because Jack Cady, a well-known writer from Seattle that I had known, once told me not to use my nickname Debbie when I wrote. “It’s a little girl’s name,” he said.
The decision to use Deborah did not work out well for me. It only confused people. Thirty-three years ago when the Trinidad Express made its home in the old cocoa house, I would often get calls from the receptionist saying someone wanted to speak to me. An utter look of shock always crossed the person’s face once I appeared. The person would inevitably say, “But you are not Deborah John.”
No, I wasn’t Deborah John. Her reputation as a fair, unbiased and caring journalist had been firmly established. It preceded my entry into journalism. Still, Deborah never made me feel unwelcome. She created no feeling of competition with other reporters. She had established her own reputation as a journalist separate and distinct from the identity her father, journalist and editor George John, had established.
She had a keen eye for a story. Deborah had been one of the first journalists to recognise the rising star of David Rudder, and when I settled in features and often wrote entertainment stories, she shared her contacts and her anecdotes about soca stars so that I could establish myself. We often ended up writing stories on the same people and the stories never appeared to be competitive. They complemented each other.
For some, journalism can be a job. Journalism proved to be Deborah’s life, and she pursued it with a rare, selfless zeal, always seeking to elevate the profession over her own personal reputation.
Years after I left the Express, I still remember a phone call I got from Deborah John about a study companion Macmillan Caribbean had me write for the play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, written by her uncle, Errol John. Deborah had been so happy, excited and supportive about the study companion. She told me that Errol John’s wife, her aunt, was still alive and she would arrange for me to meet her if I wanted. I never took her up on that opportunity, but I always felt proud that Deborah had been so pleased that a critical work of Errol John’s had been published.
I’m sorry that I never told Deborah how much I appreciated her support when I first came into journalism. At the time, I was so self-absorbed I could feel nothing but frustration that I could be confused continuously with someone else. Now, in hindsight, I realise what a privilege I had been afforded to be mixed up with such a kind, gracious, professional journalist: a good soul, whom we will all miss.