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A tribute to an exceptional, longstanding friend

A tribute to an  exceptional,  longstanding friend
FROM LEFT: Donnie DeFreitas and his first wife Hortensia with their longstanding friends Drs. Sherian and Douglas Slater in Cuba.

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by Adrian Saunders

I was shocked to learn last week of the sudden passing of a longstanding friend, Donnie DeFreitas. Donnie was exceptional. He had an unyielding commitment to strongly held convictions and an absolute fearlessness in speaking truth to power. But he combined this profound seriousness of purpose with a jovial, fun loving extraverted personality.

Although he had been working in the Pacific for a decade or so immediately before his untimely death, he was ever present in the consciousness of those of us on this side of the world who knew him well. He remained always in touch.

I knew him since we were both youngsters at the Grammar School although he was a few years younger than I. Our friendship was sustained by joint membership in political and social endeavours and a shared love of table tennis. Donnie actually had a keen interest in all sports, even those that he only became acquainted with late in his life. On one of his frequent trips back home to the Caribbean, for example, I was struck by the manner in which he explained to me, in clinical detail, how and why Samoa has been able to maintain such a high world ranking in rugby.

The sport at which he himself excelled was table tennis. He cultivated a vicious forehand loop which, when it landed, as it usually did, gave you much to think about in very little time. He also became deeply involved in the administration of that sport. He actually coached table tennis in Samoa and for many years before he left St Vincent, he served as President of the national table tennis association. It is fair to say that when he was President the sport then literally revolved around him.

He threw himself fully into promoting the game. He expanded it throughout the country by acquiring a number of boards and placing them in strategic locations. He organised competitions among schools and among commercial firms. He attracted sponsorship from several business houses and he engaged in a variety of other fundraising ventures. The strides made by the Table Tennis Association were the envy of some of the other sporting organisations. So much so that Donnie was propelled to the presidency of the National Olympic Committee (or NOC).

Under his leadership, the NOC also sprang to life. There emerged an identifiable staffed headquarters. National sports awards ceremonies were regularly held. Training opportunities opened up for budding athletes and coaches alike and a heightened level of professionalism was clearly in evidence while Donnie was at the helm. He was an energetic and skilful administrator.

Along with such notable Vincentians as Dougie Slater, Andreas Wickham, Yvette Wickham nee Barnwell, Dexter Rose, Errol Parsons, Bernard Hamilton, Thornley Myers, Ronald Child and others, Donnie did his tertiary studies in Cuba. The circumstances that facilitated study in Cuba at a time when the Cold War was raging, the exemplary conduct in Cuba of this group of Vincies and the enormous contribution each subsequently made to St Vincent and the Grenadines are matters worthy of being chronicled for posterity’s sake. But that is another story.

Donnie returned from Havana with a Masters in Electronic Engineering and complete fluency in the Spanish language. It was not long before he was able to put to excellent use his knowledge and experience in the telecommunications field. This was the period when, throughout the region, there arose an urgent desire to break the monopoly stranglehold of Cable and Wireless and liberalise and expand the telecommunications sector. It was the ideal time for patriots like Donnie who were bold, principled and creative.

Donnie was invited to join a group of Eastern Caribbean experts in the fields of telecommunications, law and public administration. Together they laboured on the herculean task of establishing a harmonised approach to the development of the telecoms sector in the Eastern Caribbean. The liberalisation process resulted in a Treaty entered into by the Governments of five Eastern Caribbean States. In each of these five States new Telecoms Acts of Parliament were promulgated with a raft of accompanying regulations. So that each could better benefit, the respective countries of Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Dominica and St Kitts and Nevis opted to join in establishing and to cede a little of their sovereignty to the newly created Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL). The whole process only took three years. This was no easy achievement. It required considerable effort and give and take from a host of actors. Donnie contributed to the exercise not just his professional expertise, but also his zeal, commitment and leadership skills.

As Director of its Technical Services Donnie played a pivotal part in the early years of ECTEL. He was later recruited to regulate the Samoan telecommunications sector. He served as Regulator in Samoa for six years before taking up a position in Fiji as Director of the newly established Pacific ICT Regulatory Resource centre. At the time of is demise, he was doing for the Pacific region what he had done in the Eastern Caribbean.

At the outset, I noted that, despite being half way across the world over the last decade plus, Donnie always remained in touch with, and was ever present in the consciousness of his friends. This did not occur by accident. He returned to the Caribbean regularly for vacation. And while in St Vincent he made every effort to visit a wide range of friends and family members of all kind, young and old, male and female. He reserved special time for lifelong friends and comrades with whom he shared a special bond. Persons like Joel Providence, Atiba Bobb, Lennox Bowman, Chris Anderson, Renwick Rose and Dougie Slater who was probably the only one of his close friends who managed to visit him in the Pacific.

The loss to us all of Donnie’s energy and zest, his curiosity of mind, his reservoir of funny anecdotes, his commitment to ennobling his environment has left us all diminished. As Atiba accurately noted, whenever Donnie was among his friends there was always more; more light, life, love, laughter, spirited discussion and camaraderie. Yes, Donnie will be sorely missed by all who knew him!

On behalf of my wife and family I extend deepest condolences to his widow, Antonia, to his son, Donito and to his siblings who loved him so dearly. May He Rest In Peace.

(With thanks to Joel Providence, Stephen
Huggins, Jennifer Astaphan, Debbie Bacchus,
Garth Saunders)