Leopold James, social activist and public figure, celebrated his 80th birthday on Tuesday, July 25. To mark the occasion, he asked the public for feedback – good, bad or anything in between – memories of him and the impact he has had on the community.
This week, we share memories of Leopold James and a heartfelt message from his younger brother, Ralph James.
By Ir. Ralph James
Leopold James was born on St. Maarten as the second child and first of six boys. When he was around four years old, his parents migrated to Aruba where his father found employment (like many other persons from the English speaking Caribbean) in the LAGO Oil Refinery in San Nicolaas. From an early age, as the son of devoted Methodists, Leopold and his siblings were fully exposed to Bible based values and norms at home. Regular church and Sunday school attendance was standard in our home. One of the lessons which Leopold learned at home was to stand up and speak up for what is right and to reach out to those in need. Let me illustrate this with a story:
Back then, fruits and other produce were transported by boat from the Windward Islands to St. Maarten on a regular basis. One day, Leopold and his younger brother Edwin were enjoying some delicious mangoes while standing by the fence which separated the yards of our family home and a Bonairian neighbour. If at that time we were poor by many standards, then this family as we would say was even poorer. At a certain moment, the neighbour-boy came out in the yard and looked at Leopold and Edwin at the fence, slowly eating those delicious mangoes without offering the neighbour-boy a single one.
When my father noticed what was going on, he called my brothers in the house, had them select some of the best looking mangoes and carry them to the neighbour boy, who of course was most delighted. Lessons like these, which were taught at home, would later in life form an integral part of Leopold's character.
At a young age, Leopold demonstrated exceptional artistic skills. Leopold would draw faces from known and unknown persons with pencil in a most incredible manner. As a matter of fact, later in life, this would inspire me to follow suit. As a young boy, Leopold was very handy with his hands around the house when there were things to be done. Leopold enjoyed sports and reading. The latter helped broaden his vocabulary in Dutch, English and German and also to expand his mind and vision on many topics.
After having gone through the primary education system, Leopold attended the well-known Abraham de Veerschool in San Nicolaas, where he excelled in math and physics. This clearly demonstrated his analytic skills and mindset. In spite of his proficiency in what we call the Beta subjects, Leopold’s first choice was a career in law. Most likely, this had to do with his early upbringings where he was taught to always pursue social justice for the less-privileged.
However, Leopold was encouraged by my parents and most likely also by the head of the school to study in a field which could be more linked to the subjects in which he excelled in school. So in July 1961, he boarded the KLM plane to Holland to study to become a chemical analyst. After having graduated, he pursued a relatively short-lived career in the Netherlands in the field of chemistry. After a few years, he decided to attend the night secondary school (Atheneum B) which he successfully completed. After his graduation, he contemplated a University degree in either medicine or biochemistry. He made the choice for the latter, which was in line with the skills he displayed at an early age for science. After graduating, Leopold left the possibility of pursuing a brilliant career in the Netherlands to return to his roots – his birth island St. Maarten.
We all know Leopold from the days that he was head of the HAVO/VWO school on Sint Maarten, during which time he motivated many students to study hard and pursue a career in a field that would not only benefit them but also their island. While active in the education field, Leopold demonstrated his quest for striving towards a St. Maarten where St. Maarteners are in charge and as such determine their destiny as a people. After going on pension, Leopold continued and intensified his activities related to championing the cause for and plight of indigenous St. Maarteners. He did so in sometimes unorthodox ways, but always with his heart in the right place.
As we look back on the life of Leopold, we must conclude that he used all the gifts which the Creator bestowed upon him wisely, never ever contemplating ways and means to enrich himself at the expense of St. Maarten – a country which he loves more than anything. He applied his scientific skills to analyse developments/issues in a most analytic way, but at the same time always placing this in a social context.
He encouraged especially young St. Maarteners to always remember that they have a responsibility to contribute towards ensuring that as the island develops, it maintains its authentic irreplaceable characteristics as "our Sint Maarten". And so, as Leopold celebrates his 80th birthday this year, he remains just as combative as he has been all his life, seeking justice and demanding from leaders of our country that all government policies should take full account and clearly reflect the interests of the indigenous St. Maarteners on both sides of the island.
As a brother, I must say that Leopold is the brother with whom I have the most contact with. Over the years, our seven-year age difference has become irrelevant. On a regular basis, we engage in discussion on many topics, some specific, others of a more philosophical nature. In all of this, we do not always agree with each other, but our mutual respect is such that, if needed, we agree to disagree.
A typical characteristic trait of Leopold is that he always speaks his mind. He does not mince his words or speak in a manner to please anyone – not even me! I can proudly say in this regard, in all the years we have been interacting, there was never ever a time that we broke off communicating with each other for whatever reason. This in itself is most remarkable. So, today, I say to my big brother:
“Happy Birthday! May the good Lord grant you many more years enjoying good health, love, joy and wellbeing – all of this well shaken together and running over abundantly. Be good and be blessed.”
Stay tuned for memories of Leopold James and feedback from the public next week.