The ultimate all-rounder Leon Walcott is a ‘Special Person’
“I know that God has blessed me. I never had a job I didn’t like.”
By Michael Jordan
I guess most boys have their heroes. Mine were martial artist Bruce Lee and master batsman Rohan Kanhai. But as I grew older, I realised that there were other heroes in my life who were right within my reach.
There was my brother, Vibart, with his incredible zest for life despite his handicaps. There was my father, who educated himself despite growing up without a father, and in poverty.
And looming large as a hero is Leon Walcott; former teacher, sports organiser and coach, journalist, small businessman, and spokesperson for the disabled.
Mr. Walcott was born on August 12, 1949 at Enmore Estate, East Coast Demerara. But from age two to 12 he lived at Diamond, East Bank Demerara, with his aunt, Ivy Patterson, and uncle.
You could say that Mr. Walcott (‘Wally’ to close friends) had challenges from the moment he entered this world.
He was born with peroneal muscular atrophy, which causes the muscles to waste away. It has now left him unable to walk unaided and partially paralysed in one hand. He was also born with an excessively curved spine.
But the aunt he grew up with was always telling him how special he was.
“Were it not for my friends and peers, and a mirror, I would not have known I had a hunchback. My aunt, Ivy Patterson, never mentioned it, and always told me ‘boy you bright, you will be somebody important.’ And she kept saying this thing to me all the time.”
“My aunt and uncle had a son, but there was no distinction made between us. We were treated equally, treated with respect. My uncle was a remarkable man in his own quiet way. We were the only two boys in the whole of that Diamond scheme who were free to stay out as long as we wanted. We would play in pastures, play in trenches, steal the white people’s cane; catch crabs, catch fish…put it on a stick and roast it, anything that boys would do.
“These things build your self-confidence. As a country boy you face a lot of challenges. I remember running from an alligator, and a boy holding me and we galloping down the dam.”
Of course, some friends teased him ‘mercilessly’ about his ‘hunchback’. But any outsider who did risked a licking from those same friends.
The family’s acceptance of him gave him the confidence to partake in other boyhood activities.
“I knew from about the age of six, seven, that I could not run as fast as other boys, my peers. I could play cricket, I was a pretty good opening batsman. I opened for ‘A’ House. I think I was selected because I was difficult to get out.
“While I could play cricket fairly well, fielding was the problem, and running between the wickets, so I focused on slip fielding.”
He attended the Diamond Primary School, and after writing the Common Entrance exams, he attended Indian Education Trust College for four years, then East Ruimveldt Secondary for two years.
“I think that it was at East Ruimveldt Secondary that I really found myself, because about three months after, the then headmaster, Horace L. Tate, appointed me head prefect. Those students were so warm and nice, they made me feel welcome. That was a wonderful school.”
He graduated from high school in 1968, and started to teach in 1969 at his alma mater.
He gets emotional when he recalls those days.
“I was 19. Imagine me, just finished school, teaching students who were sometimes two years younger than me.”
He taught geography, but then also turned to his childhood passion: sports. He began assisting with the school’s sports programme.
“When Samuel Moffatt came on as headmaster, he saw that I was assisting the games-master, and discovered that my input was greater, and the students trusted me more. Basically, Mr. Moffatt believed in results and I was getting results. I got the children interested in sports and they liked it. Almost every child wanted to participate in some sports activity.
“I think my greatest contribution to East Ruimveldt Secondary was in the field of sports and football. It was a joy for me to work with national athletes like the Lewis brothers (Vigil and Gordon), Wilton Angoy (the national high jumping champion); the late Horace David, Oliver Alves, Ronald Lee- Bing.
“During what you could call the Moffat-Walcott era we excelled in sports. I was the PE teacher until Mr. Lloyd Kingston took over. Our sports programme was so good that other schools used to come to Mr. Moffatt and ask that we run their course for them.”
Years later, many of these former athletes would confide in Mr. Walcott that he inspired them through his response to the physical challenges that he faced.
“A lot of former athletes said that they patterned themselves from me, since I was disabled and didn’t give up.”
He also earned their respect in the classroom.
“On some of them I used reverse psychology. I told one student, Hilton Forde, that he would never do well in geography.”
His words gave the student the determination to prove Mr. Walcott wrong. “Hilton later followed me into UG and got a degree in geography.”
So loved and respected was he that some students were literally prepared to lay their lives on the line for him.
He recounted the time when a former government official turned up at ‘back school’ to beat a female student who had fought with his daughter.
When Mr. Walcott intervened, the former MP drew his firearm and pointed it at Mr. Walcott’s chest.
“The schoolboys lifted me up and ran with me…my feet never touched the ground.”
Another time, Mr. Walcott went to part a fight between females from East Ruimveldt and another school, only to learn that the girls from his alma mater were fighting because a student had spoken insultingly about him.
“East Ruimveldt had a bad reputation. But that was just a mistaken perception, because it is located near to Warlock. But all the parents were interested in their children getting a good education.”
“I used to boast that my name used to part fights. I didn’t know this until a couple of parents told me this. But I don’t think it was because the students were afraid of me, because remember I was tiny, small-built, shorter than them, and sometimes parents used to mistake me for one of the students.
I think that it was a respect at the way that I conducted myself.”
But he eventually left teaching in 1981.
“I started to become jaded. I used to teach academics, carry the sports programme almost single-handedly; I was attending UG. As one former student who became a doctor told me, ‘you were the first in school and last to leave.’”
He took up a position as a senior journalist with the Guyana News Agency.
“I had started freelancing with the Guyana Chronicle in 1976 (sports), and the persons who encouraged me were Godfrey Wray and the late Quentin Taylor. I then shifted a bit from sports to current affairs.
“I know that God has blessed me. I never had a job I didn’t like. I loved journalism. I covered parliament, Caricom and economic development. In fact, between 1981 and 1984, I was the only journalist authorised to cover the central incentives area at the Planning Secretariat.
“There are two events that stand out in my days as a journalist. One was in 1983 when the US invaded Grenada. Burnham had called a press conference. At the time, I was a stringer for Radio Antilles, and journalists were asking a barrage of questions. I got up and asked the President if he would rule out military support for Grenada. He said ‘Grenada is our friend, a member of Caricom…I would not rule it out, if that request comes, I would consider it.’”
Radio Antilles was to start at 7pm. They pulled down the format. I can remember the introduction went like this: ‘Guyana’s President Forbes Burnham will not rule out military assistance to Grenada…Leon Walcott has more.’ My colleagues were cheering and I felt good.”
The other incident that stands out happened while he was working as Special Assistant to the late President Burnham (later with President Hoyte) in the Public Relations department.
“About a month later I went into Chronicle for something in the Editorial Department, and as I was leaving the Chief Information Officer Alan Fenty, was coming in, and he said ‘you is the chap that used to write and tell Forbes Burnham when he doing stupidness? I want you tell he that now.’ It shocked me. I used to write what I considered the truth…I felt good that this was the perception from the Chief Information Officer, that Walcott wasn’t afraid to tell the Government where it was going wrong.”
But ten years ago, Mr. Walcott suffered a significant setback. The muscular condition that he was born with worsened to the point where he was unable to walk unassisted or without holding on.
“I had to fight depression, because I used to be very active, and I could not go to places that I used to. I was wondering what was gong to happen to me.”
It was at that point that members of the Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Programme, came to his assistance.
“I knew some of the people there and they came around and started talking with me, and they realized that I could make a contribution and started taking me out. They made a wheelchair available to me and made arrangements to pick me up and bring me back home.
They used me as a motivational speaker. The CBR really helped get me out of depression.”
“Here was I living in denial and feeling sorry for myself because walking became increasingly difficult. When I saw so many persons bravely carrying on with their lives, I realised that I had a lot for which I have to be thankful to God.
“Being a volunteer has placed me at the head of the national disability movement. I am now the Chairman of the Guyana Council of Organisations for Persons with Disabilities. I can safely say that over the past seven years, I have helped to increase the self-esteem, and increased the earning capacity of many Guyanese living with disabilities.”
Married, and the father of three children ( two boys and a girl), Mr. Walcott, who is also the Director of the Support Group for Deaf Persons, runs a small business from his Norton Street home. He gets around in a wheelchair or a battery-operated scooter.
What advice does he have for the disabled?
“Believe in God. Try to acquire a skill, and always tell yourself that you can do it. Respect yourself and things will fall into place.”
How does he sum up his life?
“I have been blessed by God. I have been blessed with a good brain, good friends, good students, many of whom regard me as a big brother.
“There are people without disabilities who have not what I have, so it has to be a blessing.”