It is not usual to celebrate the anniversary of the death of a loved one, Alfonso Wright said as master of ceremonies in the old George Town Library on Wednesday night.
But it was an unusual occasion and the audience was an unusual gathering – relatives and family friends who came together to hear a new recording of Cayman’s National Song and be introduced or reintroduced to its composer, the late Leila Ross Shier (nee McTaggart).
Mr. Wright said he never met Miss Leila, but after hearing speakers who shared stories about her and after seeing the premiere of a 19-minute documentary by Awesome Productions, he felt as if he did meet her. And he liked her.
Sept. 26 was the 50th anniversary of Miss Leila’s death at age 81 years and 10 months.
More than once during the evening, it was suggested that Miss Leila deserved to be a National Hero. A non-partisan observer might wonder why such an honor should be bestowed because of one song, however lovely it might be.
The answers were supplied in abundance by Minister for Culture Dwayne Seymour, former MLA Lucille Seymour, and family friend Marylee Rowlandson.
Former Speaker of the House Mary Lawrence and attorney Steve McField were among people interviewed in the video, providing vignettes of Miss Leila. Their comments were seamlessly blended with photographs from the first part of the 20th century and tape recordings from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
She was artist, musician, teacher, librarian and church organist. She organized concerts and supported school plays.
She was the official Registrar of Births and Deaths. She wrote her siblings’ biographies, essays on topics of the day, and poems for any occasion. She wrote love letters for the wives of seamen to send to their spouses overseas. She wrote hymns, ballads and humorous ditties such as “Ping, Ping, Ping – The Mosquito Song.”
In those days, the government high school was behind the library, and Mrs. Lawrence recalled Miss Leila standing at the window greeting students by name and letting them know of a book that might appeal to them. Mr. McField paid tribute to her for nurturing his love of reading – a white lady taking an interest in black children at a time when there was segregation in Cayman, he said.
Although women built the homes and educated the children while so many men were at sea, it was still a patriarchal society and women did not have the right to vote until 1959. Miss Leila was one of the women who signed the petition that led to the granting of that right.
Mr. Seymour said that today Miss Leila would be considered an activist and he had often advocated for her to be declared one of Cayman’s national heroes. He described himself as an advocate for women’s rights, adding with a chuckle for people who did not know, that he has four daughters.
He acknowledged the presence of Finance Minister Roy McTaggart plus George Town MLAs Barbara Conolly and Kenneth Bryan. He hoped they would support another drive for Miss Leila’s nomination.
But what of the national song itself?
Mrs. Rowlandson, whose contribution was read by her daughter, Alpha Kozaily, explained the significance of having a national song. It is a musical composition, patriotic in general, that evokes thanksgiving for blessings and values received, she said. Its purpose is to aid citizens in understanding and appreciating their culture. In her opinion, “Beloved Isle Cayman” was one of the most beautiful national songs ever written.
Miss Leila appreciated Cayman’s God-given beauty and, in Mrs. Rowlandson’s view, the song could be sung in any cathedral as a hymn of praise and glory to the Creator.
Mrs. Lawrence said the song “captured the essence of who we are … It’s home.”
Ms. Seymour thanked Miss Leila “for giving us the opportunity to stand in public places and sing respectfully a love song to our country.”
The evening was hosted by Dan and Lisa Scott. Along with dedicating the last three years to this project, they also underwrote the costs of the video production, and having the song orchestrally arranged, performed and recorded. Mrs. Scott sang the lyrics, Hopscotch Studio produced the CD and Pinnacle Media printed the sheet music. Mrs. Scott and her sister Irma, great-granddaughters of Miss Leila, sang the song at public events for years, with additional harmony from Karen Ryan, the other member of their trio.
Wednesday’s program concluded with surprise birthday cakes for Mr. Wright and Mrs. Olsie Hunter, Miss Leila’s granddaughter. Mr. Wright, chairman of the committee to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Cayman’s Coat of Arms, held a candle as the audience sang “Happy Birthday” because he couldn’t deface the coat of arms design that decorated his cake.
He called the 19-minute documentary about Miss Leila a most valuable gift. Premier Alden McLaughlin and Cabinet secretary Samuel Rose were off island on official business, he noted, but at some point there will be a proper presentation to government of the video and the new arrangement of the song on CD and sheet music.
After the program, Mr. Scott confirmed that he and the family will do what they can to ensure that the music and the story of Miss Leila will be disseminated throughout the islands for the benefit of everyone.