A Tribute to My Aunt V
by John Mercury
Good Afternoon. My name is John Mercury. I am the nephew of the late Mrs. Viola John. Today I have the honor of sharing a few thoughts about this phenomenal woman, and herein lies my problem; for how can I capture the fragrance, the beauty and the essence of the violet, the flower that is synonymous with her name? How do I define a ray of sunlight or a moonbeam when their composition far exceeds my capacity to comprehend? After much soul-searching, I confess that that there is simply nothing that my brain can conceive that will do justice to the lady who now lies in state before us. What I do know is that on Wednesday, October 4, 1922, two significant events occurred; first Austria gained its independence; then, more importantly, a baby, paid a visit to planet Earth. That baby, born to Rosetta Mercury and Duncan Daisley, was given the name Viola Evern Daisley. She blossomed into an elegant, erudite and sophisticated lady who, by choice or by destiny, became the paradigm by which other ladies were measured. Whether singing in the choir, playing the piano or organ at this very church, she was gracefulness personified. She possessed character, integrity, passion.
A strict disciplinarian, her glance spoke volumes. Such was her stature and the reverence in which I held her that her absence resonated as profoundly as her presence. In fact, just the mere threat from my grandmother of “Wait till I tell your aunt about you,” was enough. Obviously, she was looking out for my welfare even then, because during the various stages of my primary education I was under the supervision of Mrs Sylvia Stoddard, Mrs Jean Walker, Mrs Eileen Daisley, Miss Johnson, Miss Carmen Jeffers, Miss Velma Jackson, Mr Ardon Daisley, and Mr Albert Lawrence, all colleagues of hers. I construed this as “I may not be there, but I’m watching you.” Thank God, that heightened awareness kept me on the straight and narrow. That concern extended to my sisters also, and subsequently, she adopted Barbara.
On December 22,1948 she married Calvin John, La Fleur’s dad.
From an early age, she exhibited a propensity for leadership and cognition, traits which undoubtedly propelled her into the teaching profession. Although this choice was neither easy nor lucrative, with indomitable courage, abiding faith, and a profound commitment to service, she became the consummate professional. I humbly opine that it is in this arena that she made her greatest impact. Many here today and their offspring will attest to the efficacy and diligence with which she pursued her craft.
She gave me my first job as a teacher at the Hope Government School. The way this developed was as stunning, as it was comical. I had recently completed the GCE and was looking forward to enjoying the customary rite of passage also known as, some well-deserved liming, when she called: “John Mercury, you have just completed Secondary School, I am not giving you any opportunity to run amok like some uncontrolled billy goat. I need a teacher, and you are the one. What was I to say? I mean, who could resist such an enticing approach? Certainly not I.
Yes, she had a way with words, and small wonder; she was an adept scrabble player who, even as the curtain shifted downward on her storied life, was still dispensing pearls of wisdom. If she had a mantra, it would be: “Oh Lord, help me each day to help someone, somewhere, achieve their unique purpose in life.” Ever cognizant of the fact that her earthly sojourn was fleeting, she relentlessly strove for the development of the whole person. This was her lifelong goal.
In an era when it was considered polite and genteel for women to remain the “silent majority,” Mrs Viola John opted to be the exception. She championed the cause of equal rights for all and pushed the established boundaries until they collapsed. Certainly, vestiges of this Colonial Albatross still remain, but they are less onerous because she dared to be a visionary, because she dared to challenge the status quo.
It was during my teaching stint that I was able to observe her closely. I discovered that her stern mien masked a heart of pure gold. There was nothing within her purview that she would not do to assist someone in need. She commanded respect, demanded excellence, and rewarded both accordingly. She was firm, but she was fair, and at the end of any interaction, all parties understood that she harbored no animosity.
She taught me that contrary to my beliefs, rural children were neither intellectually nor materially inferior to their urban counterparts; rather they were fecund fields teeming with future leaders whom I was privileged to nurture. Nowhere was this point more forcefully displayed than in the case of the Hope Government School. I am not sure whether the name “Hope” predated her tenure as the Principal or whether it was changed subsequently. If it was, then it must have been someone’s idea of a cruel joke. From all accounts, when she arrived there, what she encountered was chaos and apathy on the part of the community and ultimately the student body.
Truancy was legendary as parents kept their children at home to babysit or to carry bananas to the various stations on shipment days. Teachers, unable to function optimally could do little but vent their frustrations sometimes on the very students in their charge. Typically optimistic and undaunted, she assessed the situation, identified and partnered with some of the influential persons in the community, and set about re-educating the parents about the importance of education as a vital pillar in their future development. She also isolated some students from the general body and personally groomed them for higher learning. One who comes to mind is Rosa Dalton, who not only attended the Girls’ High School, but graduated to become a tutor at the venerable institute as well.
It was not long before a substantial percentage of her students who sat for the common entrance exams were being accepted at the Boys Grammar School and the Girls’ High School. Such successes turned the tide; parents who had been previously antagonistic flocked to endorse her efforts; more importantly, the education authorities began to take note. On the strength of her belief in the nobility of the human spirit, this stalwart had redefined the word Hope in Hope School, inspired a community, and transformed a bleak landscape to a verdant garden of possibilities.
Events yet to be chronicled will reflect innumerable instances of her generosity to students who, but for her financial intervention, would have been unable to realize their full potential, or encountered tremendous difficulties doing so.
She was not “all work and no play.” Many afternoons on the way home, the staff would spontaneously decide to hustle to our various homes, grab whatever we found there, be it ground provisions, fish, meat, breadfruit, and drinks, and wend our way to some beach for a cookout. At other times we would journey to the Nurse’s residence at Vermont, where we would be regaled with some of the tastiest callaloo soup I have ever had. Or we would picnic at one of the fabled deep holes like Gumbs, for which Vermont is noted. I dare say that many a romance was sparked by those interludes, some of which bore fruit; but undeniably they fostered a camaraderie that has lasted a lifetime. Aunt Viola was the unobtrusive facilitator who enabled all of this.
Her influence extended far beyond the classroom. As a resident of the NY area, I have had difficulty explaining to some Vincentians who I am. Faced with queries, I would ask: “You know Mrs. Viola John?” More often than not the response would be: Of course! Why you didn’t say so before? Of course, I know her. She was my best teacher!” Over time she became my identification.
I was privileged to see how she conducted her business – quietly, behind the scenes, devoid of fanfare and any need for self-aggrandizement, moving seamlessly between the various units, using each vantage point gained to build consensus that would bridge the divide and maximize the results. She was the confidant par excellence who did not wilt even when assailed by adverse criticisms, who maintained that unshakable confidence that people are inherently good and will always embrace the opportunity for amicable resolution when given the opportunity to do so.
Having ascended to the pinnacle of her profession as an educator, she sought challenges elsewhere ranging from Credit Union to Church Councils. She also immersed herself in various cultural activities such as cricket —she was an avid fan — often aided and abetted by her two lifelong friends Miss Shirley Charles and Miss Nina Maloney. She was also a former netball player who served as patron of the SVG Netball Association. She relinquished this position only when her health began to fail.
On Sunday, March 10th, this national treasure slipped away to a place of quiet repose. It is significant that even in death she continues to amaze. This is the first time that my five siblings and I have been together in the same place at the same time. I am persuaded that only Aunt Viola could accomplish this. I can hear her chuckling at this final coup.
Her life reminds me of a quote by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which states: “An individual has not started living until she rises above the confines of her individual concern to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
I believe that he must have been thinking of her when he penned that. Given that premise, I know she lives. She lives enshrined in our hearts for all time. And when the annals of our history are updated, she will live as a bona fide member of the exclusive cadre of extraordinary nation-builders. On behalf of my mother Audrey in Curacao, my aunt Elene in England, sisters on her maternal side; Gracie, sister on her paternal side; my siblings Barbara, Noreen, Donna, Daphne, and Angela, my wife Bridget, her niece Juliet in England, her great nieces Lynnique and Nyasha, her great nephews Adlai, Gary, Omari and Obialo, her nephew-in-law Lisle Brown, and on my own behalf, I extend profound condolences to La Fleur, Gilbert, (her adopted son), Kezi and family. Know that she not only blazed a trail to excellence, she also illumined the path for others to follow.
This is the legacy she bequeaths to us. So, as you visit familiar places she frequented or reflect on times spent in her company, it’s natural to weep, to mourn her physical absence; but be encouraged by what Vice President Joe Biden said “There will come a time when the thought of her will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes.” I pray that time will bring healing. May God guard your hearts and guide your steps as you pursue your destiny; and may He bless her memory and the lives she impacted.