A ‘true friendship’ remembered

Tributes pour in for Governor Thomas Russell

Former Cayman Islands Governor Thomas Russell, left, with Jennifer Dilbert and Prince Edward at a reception for the Cayman Islands London Office in 2003.

The first time former Cayman Islands Chief Secretary Lemuel Hurlston and former Governor Thomas Russell sat down to meet, they got into what Mr. Hurlston described as a “heated” verbal confrontation over civil service salaries.

In the months and years after that initial spat, they became the best of friends until Governor Russell’s death on Monday. He died in Scotland at age 96.

“[Governor] Russell could do the detail work, but he could also step back and look at the big picture,” Mr. Hurlston said. “There are not many people like that.”

Former Leader of Government Business Truman Bodden remembers traveling as an MLA with then-Governor Russell in the late 1970s to the United Nations in New York to inform the U.N. Committee on De-Colonization that Cayman was perfectly happy staying with the U.K.

“The U.N. committee was shocked when they saw us appear, I don’t think they’d ever heard anyone dispute their recommendations before,” Mr. Bodden recalled on Wednesday, adding that while he did not directly address the U.N., Governor Russell provided a lot of background information and support for the relatively young and inexperienced Mr. Bodden. “He helped prepare us. I had not the slightest clue [at the time] … about international affairs.”

A young Donovan Ebanks, who would decades later become Cayman’s first deputy governor, recalls getting a surprise invitation while attending school in Trinidad in the 1970s to dine with Mr. Russell, whom he had never met. Mr. Russell knew Mr. Ebanks’s father, Craddock, from the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly.

“He was very humble, down-to-earth, easy to talk to,” Mr. Ebanks recalls. “I was surprised he wanted to meet with some university kid.”

Stories poured in Tuesday and Wednesday as Caymanians recalled Mr. Russell with great fondness.

Acting Governor Franz Manderson described Mr. Russell’s kindness and “fearless commitment to helping others,” attributes which were also recognized by Mr. Bodden, who led Cayman’s government between 1992 and 2000.

“He did a lot for this country,” Mr. Bodden said. “We, the Executive Council, voted to give him Caymanian status.” Opposition Leader and “father” of the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly, McKeeva Bush, said Tuesday that many British-appointed governors since might have taken cues from Mr. Russell.

“I respected Tom Russell because he helped Cayman develop,” Mr. Bush said. “He didn’t seek to put stumbling blocks in our way. His governance was good and he didn’t allow the [U.K.] Foreign and Commonwealth Office to overly intrude on Cayman’s rights as an overseas territory.

“I will say that Tom Russell was the top best of the three top governors [including] Mr. Russell, Mr. [John] Owen and Mr. [Michael] Gore.”

Meeting the U.N.

In 1977, then-newly elected MLA Truman Bodden was summoned to New York, along with fellow MLA George Smith and Governor Russell to address the United Nations committee that was seeking the decolonization of the remaining world colonies.

Cayman, which had opted to remain a U.K. overseas territory in 1972, wanted nothing of the sort, Mr. Bodden said.

“I was about 30-ish at the time,” said Mr. Bodden, who acknowledged that his knowledge of world affairs at the time was not what it is now. “I learned a lot from him. He had good foresight of Cayman’s future.

“We urged the U.N. to keep us as a colony,” Mr. Bodden recalls. “We thought economic independence was more important than political independence. They were shocked.”

Mr. Bodden, who saw a number of territorial governors come and go from the 1970s until his time as government leader ended after the 2000 elections, said Governor Russell’s position in the U.K. colonial service gave him unique insight into Cayman’s situation during the 1970s.

Before he came to Cayman, Mr. Russell served as financial secretary in the Solomon Islands, where he gained knowledge of territorial finances. He also served as chief secretary there, gaining experience in the day-to-day management of territorial government.

“He came with a working knowledge of how colonies – that’s what they were called at the time – operated, and he had financial experience,” Mr. Bodden recalls. “You couldn’t get any better than that.”

Some governors drawn from the U.K. diplomatic service in later years, might not have had the same on-the-ground experience, Mr. Bodden said.

“He was there at a time when [Cayman] needed guidance,” Mr. Bodden said.

Salary squabble

In 1981-82, Mr. Hurlston, then in civil service middle management, found himself on the opposite side of the negotiating table from Mr. Russell and then-Financial Secretary Sir Vassel Johnson, trying to obtain a cost-of-living pay raise for government workers.

Despite what some might consider an intimidating meeting with the governor and Sir Vassel, Mr. Hurlston said the talks “grew heated.”

“Some of my colleagues felt I was being a little bit too harsh,” he said. “But I felt Mr. Russell was listening and respected what I said on behalf of the employees.”

That initial confrontation led the two men to develop a closer relationship in years to come, which turned out to be a good thing because Mr. Hurlston ended up taking over the government’s Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs. The portfolio oversaw the fledgling Cayman Islands London Office, which Mr. Russell was appointed to lead in 1982.

“He then reported back to me,” Mr. Hurlston said.

The role of the London office in the early days was to help recruit civil service expertise and staff from the U.K. More importantly, Mr. Hurlston said, Mr. Russell also had a hand in drafting operating policies for government entities, including for the Executive Council [now called Cabinet], some of which are still in effect today.

Four Cayman Islands governors, including Thomas Russell, far right, attended a 2008 reception for the London office. Pictured, from left, are Mary Chandler-Allen, Bruce Dinwiddy (former governor), Jennifer Dilbert, and former governors John Owen, Michael Gore and Mr. Russell.
Four Cayman Islands governors, including Thomas Russell, far right, attended a 2008 reception for the London
office. Pictured, from left, are Mary Chandler-Allen, Bruce Dinwiddy (former governor), Jennifer Dilbert, and former governors John Owen, Michael Gore and Mr. Russell.

When Mr. Russell left the London office in 2000 after nearly 18 years, at age 80, a Caymanian, Jennifer Dilbert, took over the position.

“He was such a wonderful man. He helped me so much when I took over the London office from him,” Ms. Dilbert said. “He also attended [my] wedding in 1980, so we have known him for a long time.

“Last Christmas, during his annual visit to Cayman, he attended our family’s Sunday tea and worshiped with his many friends at John Gray Memorial Church,” Ms. Dilbert said. “He attended the West Bay Senior Citizen Christmas Party and was given a prize for being the oldest gentleman there.” Mr. Hurlston said he last saw Mr. Russell during his Christmastime visit to Cayman as well, and said the former governor still looked quite spry for his 95 years.

“He promised to meet up the next time I was in the U.K.,” Mr. Hurlston said. “We parted on the best of terms. It was a true friendship.”

Father figure

Mary Chandler-Allen, who served in the Cayman Islands London Office for 28 years, first met Mr. Russell in Cayman and worked as his personal assistant between 1980 and 1981.

Following his retirement from the U.K. foreign office in January 1982 at age 61, Ms. Chandler-Allen said Mr. Russell spent another 18 years expanding the services provided by the London office.

“He never overlooked an opportunity to speak up for Cayman,” Ms. Chandler-Allen said. “Whilst many Caymanians have said how popular he was, it is also true to say that he loved Cayman.”

Ms. Chandler-Allen, who retired from the London office in 2011, described Mr. Russell as a “father figure” who gave her away during her wedding ceremony in 1990. She said Mr. Russell had been in and out of hospital since April and was being administered home care when she last visited him in June.

Old age, she said, did not come without hardships for the former governor.

“He had to deal with the loss of his wife in 1989 and then, in recent years, his only son Malcolm – a tragic blow from which I felt he might not recover,” she said. “But he was incredibly strong and stoic. He had continued to travel and socialize until the start of this year – he did not see his age as a barrier.

“Whilst there is sadness, we can also celebrate a life well lived.”