HE WAS the great motivator, the supreme commander shouting orders and rallying his troops in the constant excitement and turmoil of the newsroom. Owen Baptiste was an exemplary editor-in-chief who set the bar for journalism on the highest level in this region.
With nothing but a short resume that included a recommendation from novelist Earl Lovelace and the mention of a few short stories I had sold to magazines in the US, I had come to ask OB, as he was fondly known by all, for a job 37 years ago. I wore an embroidered, long-sleeved black cotton dress with a neck-hugging ruffled collar. Near the end of the interview, he watched the black dress and asked, “Are you going to a funeral after this?”
Much to my surprise, OB hired me and put me in one of his training pools, which he formed every quarter. We received a stipend of $2,000 a month paid for on-the-job training. I remember Ria Taitt and Sandra Chouthi were in my batch. Less than one-quarter of those hired survived the baptism by fire.
We stood in the shadows of strong journalists we admired: David Renwick, Keith Smith, Raoul Pantin and Andy Johnson. We formed a motley crew with the likes of fashionista Rosemary Stone; the elegant, poised and quietly powerful Omatie Lyder and Judy Raymond. Later, we had intellectuals like Wesley Gibbings. OB mentored strong women investigative reporters: Camini Maharaj, Suzanne Lopez and Niala Maharaj, and balanced them with sensitive feature writers like Deborah John and me. Perky and passionate were the best ways to describe OB’s journalists like Leonard Robinson and Kathy Ann Waterman, now a High Court justice. Peter Blood was our beloved entertainment reporter.
Each OB recruit was a distinct individual. No two people were alike. Compare soft-spoken court reporter Fulton Wilson with Angela Martin who had her hotline before becoming a features editor. We heard about legendary journalists before us: Kitty Hannays and George John.
OB’s newsroom was a living, throbbing, exciting, noisy, tension-packed place. Sometimes Keith Smith leaped up from his desk in a fit of rage. Once someone threw a bottle across the room. Sometimes we took cover under our desks. OB always shrugged off those emotional outbursts.
“What are you going to do?” he said to me one day. “If you want creative people, you have to put up with them letting off steam.” With an uncharacteristic calmness, he might ask a hot-tempered, stressed-out journalist to take a walk. That meant going across the street to buy a Coca-Cola in the Chinese-run bar we called Viet Nam, also known for flying bottles.
We loved, respected and feared OB. When he descended those stairs to sit in his glass office we held our breath. He called each of us inside to buff us while he used a red pencil to circle our mistakes. Not even Rhona, his wife, who ran the Junior Express, was spared.
OB encouraged individuality in his journalists, but he also moulded them in his own image, a winning combination of creativity, tenacity, boldness and fairness. He insisted on multiple sources and different points of view for every story. Under OB, we felt like we belonged to the most respected profession in TT. He stood up for his journalists.
Once someone called up to complain about a story I wrote and he said, “You dumb sh---. She asked you the same question three times in three different ways, and you answered it all three times.” He taught us how to craft perfect questions.
Everyone speaks of OB’s journalists, but he had an eye for great photographers too. Alva Viarruel, Della Ann Stewart and Mike Smith became award-winning photographers who captured action-packed photos and the essence of their subjects.
We learned our craft of writing, researching and interviewing from the best in journalism. “Journalism isn’t about events. It’s about people. It’s not about the house that burned down. It’s about the people who were inside the house,” OB said.
Long after I left the newsroom, I lived to please OB. His compliments, which are indelibly imprinted in my memory, buoyed my spirit and inspired me. OB gave many of us our big chance in life. We ventured out in the world with courage, commitment, a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging.
Rest in peace, dear OB. You set the standard for journalistic integrity in this region. We were so lucky to have you in our corner of the world. You left quite a legacy. You are a legend.