She may be approaching her 83rd birthday, but Cayman’s only living National Hero, Sybil McLaughlin, doesn’t see why that should mean slowing down. “My health is good so there is no reason why I should just sit and fold my hands,” she declares.
It’s this ‘can do’ attitude that has led Mrs. McLaughlin to travel the world, become the full-time clerk of the Legislative Assembly – the first woman to hold this post in the Commonwealth – earn an MBE, be appointed first speaker of the Legislative Assembly, speak two languages, found a number of clubs, act as a Justice of the Peace, teach Sunday school, play the organ and become a lay pastor. Her impressive list of achievements goes on, but Mrs. McLaughlin is not one to blow her own trumpet. On the contrary, she seems to gloss over much of it, as if it were barely worth mentioning.
Others, however, have clearly seen the valuable contribution she has made to Cayman, both in parliamentary terms and in the wider community, and the example she has set for so many to live up to. Upon her retirement in 1996 she was awarded Cayman Islands’ highest honour: she was made a National Hero in 1996. “It was a surprise to me,” she says. “I didn’t expect that at all. All the things I do, I do them because I enjoy it.”
Although she doesn’t claim to have been particularly ambitious as a youngster, she does describe how as a child, she used to imagine herself sitting at a big desk, working. Being brought up by her aunts, one of whom was a nurse and the other the district post-mistress, may have influenced her decision to pursue a career of her own long before Women’s Lib became a hot topic.
Unlike other parts of the world, she says, in the Cayman of her youth, the menfolk were often absent due to their jobs – her own father had moved from Cayman to Alabama before she was born and her husband Delworth went off to sea for several years – so the women had to fend for themselves.
Sybil McLaughlin’s early years must also have contributed to her spirit of self-reliance: at the age of two her father died and her mother returned to Cayman with her and her siblings, before leaving again to find work in the US. Not long after that she was sent to Nicaragua with an aunt for her kindergarten years, returning to George Town primary school before going back to Managua, Nicaragua, for college.
Growing up in an age when women were not generally expected to want or be interested in careers of their own, Mrs. McLaughlin was something of a trail blazer, taking up employment with the government as clerk-typist in 1945. “My first job was counting rabbit heads,” she recalls. At the time rabbits ran rife on Grand Cayman and those who hunted them received a monetary reward from the government for every head they brought in.
From there her career took off and she was appointed clerk of the Legislative Assembly in 1959. During the course of her career she travelled widely to countries she had never dreamed she would go, to attend conferences all over the Commonwealth, contributing much to the development of the parliamentary system in Cayman. When the constitution was re-written she was appointed Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in 1991. But it wasn’t all work and no play either: In addition to her work for the government she found time to set up a tennis club, the Business and Professional Women’s Club and the Rotary Sunrise Club. “There was never a dull moment,” she says, looking back on a full, rich life.
There is no doubt the Island has changed beyond recognition since she was a girl growing up here. “My grandfather owned the first car on The Island,” she says. “People weren’t used to motor cars in those days, so you had to really toot the horn before going round a corner…. There weren’t all the roads there are now and every time a new road opened it was like a holiday for the whole Island.”
In spite of the swarms of mosquitoes and the sand-flies that got in one’s eyes and one’s hair, she says people enjoyed life a great deal then. Life in those days, she says, centred around the church. The church was the community and everybody looked out for each other.
While the church is still an important part of social and community life, and Mrs. McLaughlin still plays the organ at the Moravian church, she sees that outside influences are partly to blame for the troubles some of Cayman’s youth is experiencing. “The Island has moved – we are so open to influences from outside, from other countries. We see it on TV, in the news,” she says. “All countries go through phases – good and bad – depending on the people who are there at the time. But it’s about how people are brought up at home. The parents need to be there, to guide them.”
Sybil McLaughlin is a pioneer and an example for the young men and women of Cayman to live up to. Way ahead of women in the rest of the world, she pursued her own career with loyalty and determination, holding positions women had never before held. Knee trouble prevents her playing tennis these days but she walks a lot and watches the tennis on TV. She also enjoys a game of Scrabble and keeping in touch with family and friends via email.
To young people today who are struggling to find their place, her advice is “Do your best. Trust in the Lord… each person is here for a particular purpose. And when you put your head down to rest at night, make sure it is with a good, clear conscience.”