Sunday, 9 June 2013

Tribute to Uncle Blair of Okuapemman School (17-04-13)

Tribute to Uncle Blair of Okuapemman School (17-04-13)

William Blair Butterworth who died on Good Friday in Seattle, Washington State in the USA was a huge influence on the lives of hundreds of men and women who were lucky to be his students at Okuapemman School in the early 1960s. I was one of those and wherever and whenever we have met in the years since, Uncle Blair as we called him, has always been part of the conversation. It is strange that I only knew him for only one year because his inspirational impact on me has been disproportionately large.

In a sense, although Blair stayed in Ghana for only three years, this country also loomed disproportionally large in his own life which has been cut short tragically by cancer at the age of 74. He had an enduring love affair with Okuapemman School and Ghana and visited this country at least three times after he finished his stint as one of the first batch of Peace Corp Volunteers who arrived in this country in 1961. If my memory serves me right, he was perhaps the only PCV to stay for an additional year after the customary two years ended. His last visit was four years ago when he came to open the ICT laboratory in the school which was built on his inspiration, mostly with his funding and now bears his name.

He was larger than life in all senses of the expression; definitely when I went to Okuapemman School he was the one person you would not miss. He was tall and big in the way only Americans grow to be and added to his physical presence a booming voice that would often be heard in laughter. He represented for us “America” at that time in the first 20 years after the Second World War when US power was unrivalled and still in the ascendancy. People like Uncle Blair were the reason why despite years of political disdain for some of America’s imperialist excesses many people of my generation still have a profound love for the American people and way of life.

Blair was a Kennedy American. He was only 25 when he was made Assistant Headmaster at the school. This was rather unusual; assistant headmasters in secondary schools used to be dowdy catechist-type teachers of the old school. They were usually the ones who meted out the most extreme punishment for the least infraction of the rules. Assistant headmasters of the time did not laugh much, not in front of students because laughter would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Assistant headmasters did not have to show LOVE for their students even if they felt it. That was the way it was. Blair was different. And that is why and how he became my hero for life. He made school a lot more fun to be at and many of us followed him like the guru he was just to hear what he had to say.

At Okuapemman Uncle Blair taught a number of subjects including English, English literature and French but it was his running commentary on current affairs, especially the struggle of Black people in America for justice and equality in the US that struck a chord. It was from him we learnt about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He was a huge fan of Muhammad Ali and I remember that he was probably the only person in the whole school who predicted that Ali, then called Cassius Clay, would defeat the fierce Sonny Liston who had made mincemeat of some serious heavyweights in the ring. Blair typically used the Clay-Liston fight to explain some of the changes going on in America and the future represented by Clay and his type.

He told us about Jack Kennedy and on the night we learnt of Kennedy’s death Uncle Blair became our immediate target of sympathy because he was for us what we felt Kennedy stood for: youthful idealism, coexistence, respect for our different cultures, but above all, a subtle form of subversion of the old order and an impatience to change things. When I think back on it, “change” was his message. He introduced new ideas and concepts, including teaching French by gramophone records known as the “Assimile” or immersion method, which was revolutionary then and still widely used for rapid language learning in some countries. He would play rock and jazz on his gramophone for us and run his usual commentary on Satchmo or whoever he was playing.

One particular day stands in my memory and I have written about it in this column and elsewhere for its magical effect. Before Blair poetry for me and my fellow students was known as “recitation”, a mindless act of memorising verse and reciting it mostly to satisfy the curriculum but with no aesthetic effect. Uncle Blair was the first teacher to introduce us to poetry as a beautiful piece of art that speaks a language of intelligent emotion. On this day he decided to to introduce us to Edgar Alan Poe via Annabel Lee:

It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

By the name of ANNABEL LEE;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

Than to love and be loved by me.


I can still see him even today reading from the book with that twinkle in his eyes and booming that magic stanza to his students. It was calculated to have an effect. It did. Back in the dormitory that evening I picked up my pen and started writing a poem. Yes, a love poem. When you discover the power of poetry at the age of twelve that is what you write, or think you are writing. But the effect on me was instantaneous and magical and has not waned to date.

We missed him dearly when he left at the end of the first year but I reconnected with him albeit briefly five years later when I went to America to attend Camp Rising Sun at Rhinebeck in New York State. He visited the camp and stayed at the Guest House overnight and participated in a few of the events before leaving for Washington DC. He invited me to the US capital before I returned to Ghana and what happened at dinner was pure Uncle Blair. He took me to the nicest restaurant I had even seen, let alone enter, at that point in my life. When the waiter came for our orders Uncle Blair ordered steak and I said “the same”. The waiter asked “rare or well done?” and Uncle Blair said “rare”. I said “the same”. When the food arrived it was a piece of red meet bathed in what looked like a pool of blood! Uncle Blair burst out laughing. That was the occasion to explain American culinary complexities, but meanwhile he had secretly ordered a “well done” for me knowing that would be more to my taste.

Five years ago when he visited Ghana he brought his two sons to show them the country he had told them so much about. He decided to help Okuapemman School in some way and at the suggestion of his sons settled on setting up an ICT laboratory which has since been furnished and equipped with funds provided by Blair and some past students. But what stands out is his exceptional quality as a loving human being. He just loved his students and the opportunity to impart new ideas to his young charges. There was no boundary about subjects or topics he could discuss. That was his legacy: learning and cultures have no boundaries.


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