Cultural benefactor Helen Harquail dies

Helen Harquail, a respected member of the Cayman Islands community since the 1960s and an arts-loving philanthropist whose generosity led to the new national gallery and the islands’ largest theatre which bears her name, died Monday at her home in Grand Cayman. She was 100. 

“This was truly her home and she wanted to do everything that she could to make it better for everyone,” said Sharon Roulstone, describing Mrs. Harquail’s generosity. Ms Roulstone was the family’s lawyer. 

“There was nothing she did that was just to benefit her,” she said. 

Mrs. Harquail is best known for her significant contributions to the Cayman National Cultural Foundation and the Cayman Islands National Gallery. 

In 1997, Mrs. Harquail donated the 4-acre parcel of land on which the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands now stands and contributed a significant amount to the National Gallery’s building fund.  

Some 30 years ago, she also donated 8 acres to the Cayman National Cultural Foundation, paving the way for the territory’s national theatre, the F.J. Harquail Cultural Centre, home to the 350-seat Harquail Theatre. Mrs. Harquail funded its construction, stipulating that the people of the Cayman Islands would own the centre. It is named in memory of her late husband, Frank Harquail. 

“Those two things will, obviously, live on,” said Henry Muttoo, artistic director of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. “She did a great thing for Cayman by donating so much money and building this, and that should be remembered always,” he said. 

From Canada to Cayman  

Mrs. Harquail was born in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1912, just seven years after it became a province and four years before women were granted the legal right to vote. 

She was reared on a farm during an era when the isolated western province was being settled by pioneers and conditions could be rough, especially during the long, cold winters.  

But Mrs. Harquail had her sights set beyond the boundaries of her family’s farm. 

While in her early 20s, Mrs. Harquail learned to figure skate in Saskatoon, Canada, honing her skills with a rigorous practice schedule.  

When someone suggested she audition for the Ice Follies, she went on a lark and won a role with the famous professional touring ice show, travelling with the company across the US and Canada for two years. 

It was on a flight from Montreal to Calgary that Mrs. Harquail met her husband. 

A wealthy Canadian businessman, Mr. Harquail was self made, with interests in mining, heavy construction and ranching. He travelled the world on business and loved to bring home exquisite jewellery and gifts for his wife. 

“Frank lavished her with everything a woman could ever want,” Ms Roulstone said in an interview with Grand Cayman magazine in 2012. “She was his life, and I believe she adored him as much. She talk[ed] about him quite a lot – about how good a man he was.” 

The couple settled for a while in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Mrs. Harquail took up golf, winning numerous trophies and competitions. 

Sports, like the arts, were a big part of her life, and she dominated the women’s golfing scene in Las Vegas, winning many local and state championships. 

After years of living in the US and Canada, Mr. Harquail was looking to set up a base of operations in the Caribbean. The couple moved to the Cayman Islands in the late 1960s and purchased some land near West Bay Road, which was merely a dirt road at the time. 

 Contributions to culture, arts  

It was Mr. Harquail’s love of theatre that sparked his wife’s passion for the arts. Her contributions to the Harquail Cultural Centre were a testament to his memory. 

Mrs. Harquail received an the Order of the British Empire honour from Queen Elizabeth in 1987 for her services to cultural development in the Cayman Islands. 

“She really loved the arts and she wanted to see the arts developed, and I think that her wish has been fulfilled,” Mr. Muttoo said. 

Natalie Urquhart, director of the National Gallery, commended Mrs. Harquail’s foresight in supporting Cayman’s arts scene. 

“She recognised very early on that the arts were fundamental in all of our lives and chose to support the then-fledging Cayman National Cultural Foundation and later the development of the National Gallery by generously gifting land and building funds,” Ms Urquhart said.  

Carol Owen, founding chairwoman of the National Gallery and wife of former governor John Owen, said that the Cayman Islands owes much of its cultural and artistic legacy to Mrs. Harquail’s generosity. 

“John and I were privileged to know Mrs. Harquail as a friend and are deeply saddened by her passing,” Mrs. Owen said. 

“However, we are pleased that her contribution to the islands will live on in the form of the Cayman Islands National Gallery, the Harquail Theatre and the other cultural agencies which benefited from her generosity,” she said. 

Although Mrs. Harquail’s health had been in decline due to her advanced age, Ms Roulstone said that she was alert to the end. 

“She was completely within her senses, she was comfortable, and she just passed away peacefully after she took a couple sips of water and prayed for the rain,” Ms Roulstone said. 

“She asked God to let it rain, we don’t know why, but He certainly granted her wish,” she said. 

Funeral announcements will be made at a later date, as Mrs. Harquail’s immediate family in Canada were making arrangements to travel to Cayman. 

Ms Roulstone said that Mrs. Harquail wished to be buried in Cayman. 

“From a long time ago, she made up her mind that she was never going to be buried in Canada with [her husband], she was going to be buried in Cayman because that’s where she considered home and that’s where she wanted to be.”  

 

This story includes extracts from an interview with Mrs. Harquail that ran in sister publication Grand Cayman.  

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For more than 50 years, Helen Harquail was a driving force behind the islands’ visual and performance arts venues. – Photo: David Wolfe