Stephen Vasciannie (Class of 1976), former KC Head Boy and Rhodes Scholar, is the focus of this month’s “Where are They Now” column.
Born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Vineyard Town to Paul and Mavis Vasciannie, the Vasciannie family moved to Meadowbrook while he was a toddler. Vasciannie’s credits his early love of learning to his parents who provided a secure, stable, supportive and loving home environment.
“My maternal grand-mother, Claris Innis, was of immeasurable importance: she gave me the intellectual drive, and her happiness about my academic work was a key source of inspiration for me.” Other influential family members include brother, Dennis Duncan, also a KC old boy who represented KC in both table tennis and cricket, and cousins, Courtney Innis and James Campbell.
Vasciannie attended St. Richards Primary School on Red Hills Road, which is also the alma mater of this writer. “My strongest early influence at school was the legendary Gloria Cunningham. She insisted upon discipline, determination and, of course, hard work; but, at the same time, she was careful to ensure that we were happy and sensitive to each other. The late Sister Cabrini, a Principal also of legendary status, played a major role in the moral and spiritual upbringing of her students, while Mrs. Campbell, Mrs. Lawrence and Mrs. Robinson were responsible for my classes up the St. Richard's ladder: they were all first-class teachers.” With rigorous academic standards and a profound belief that every child can learn, irrespective of socio-economic background or race, St. Richards consistently had phenomenal Common Entrance passage rates.
“I chose KC mainly because my brother, Dennis Duncan, was there. Dennis prompted thoughts of KC with stories about the Champs-winning, Manning Cup-winning, Sunlight-winning, Kelall Cup-winning institution. "T.C." Campbell, "Rat" Smith, Zeph Henry, Prescod, Neville Oxford, Lucas, Michael Melbourne, these sporting heroes were household names to me before I did the Common Entrance. And then in the then newly started Schools’ Challenge Quiz, I remember Geoff Madden making a strong impression in purple and white. But some family members, church background, and school connection pointed towards St. George's. My mother took me over to St. George's and then we went over to KC. Douglas Forrest greeted us warmly, and KC it was! Dennis passed on the indefinable magic and school spirit of KC to me.”
Vasciannie’s most memorable moments at KC include: the fire that engulfed the North Street campus on May 19, 1977; victory in the Schools' Challenge Quiz, under the tutelage of the illustrious Frances Coke, on May 3, 1977; and the sadness of losing Champs after the glorious 14-year run, mixed with the exhilaration of our determination to rebound.
“I am indebted for the teaching and pastoral skills of Rev. McNab, and exceptional instructors such Mrs. Coke, the Reids, Ms. Douglas, Mrs. Urquhart, Mr. Been, Mrs. Harris, Mr. McDonald, Mr. Thompson and a wonderful group of other teachers of the highest quality. Mr. Bruce's ‘cane juice’ incidents cannot be forgotten, nor can Wally Johnson's sense of humor, George T's Manning Cup triumphs, and Michael Holding bowling to a slip cordon of the conquering Sunlight team at Melbourne Park with Dennis at third slip cannot be erased from the mind's imprint. And, yes, we were there for academic development, so books had to be beaten!”
In a fitting tribute to both his outstanding intellectual ability and his leadership skills, Vasciannie was elected Headboy by a vote of his sixth form peers in 1977. He also served as Editor of the school magazine along with a strong group of sub-editors which included E.K. Scott, Bernard Jankee, Richard Dyche, Donald Jones, Orville Beckford and Howard Walters. We can all recall just how eagerly we anticipated getting our copy of the school magazine. Sadly, in an age of computers and easy access technology, the school magazine is no longer being published. “It would, I think, be a good thing for the school magazine to be revived,” says Vasciannie.
Vasciannie was also a member of the Schools’ Challenge Quiz team from 1976 to 1978. “In the first of these, the team of Barrington Salmon ("skipper"), Patrick Dallas, Michael Hewett and myself reached the semi-finals. In the following year, I captained the team with Charlton Collie, Maurice Bailey and Maurice Haynes to victory. That same team stumbled in the quarter-finals in the following year, a recollection that still teaches me lessons. Many of these school colleagues have become lifelong friends - the friendships built have been central to my life both within school and without.”
After leaving KC, Vasciannie obtained a UWI Open Scholarship where he pursued a degree in Economics. “After UWI, I went to Balliol College, Oxford University, on the Rhodes Scholarship, and eventually spent 8 years in England as a student (later on a Commonwealth Scholarship), and one as a Research Fellow in International Law at St. Catharine's College, Cambridge University. Following England, I spent about two years at the United Nations, and then joined a [New York] law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, in the practice of corporate and securities law.”
Typically, this is where the story would end. But unlike most of us who studied abroad, Vasciannie eschewed the lure of financial security and comfort of North America or Europe and returned to his native land.
“Why did I choose to return to Jamaica? I responded to the pull of roots. Partly because it's home: I needed to find out whether it was true that you can never return home. But, perhaps more importantly, I had never seen myself as a migrant while I was away; I had always wanted to live in Jamaica and to make my contribution here. So I returned home when I believed the time was opportune.”
After a brief foray into the political world with the National Democratic Movement, Vasciannie returned to his true passion: academia. He currently serves as Principal of the Norman Manley Law School; Member of the United Nations International Law Commission (Geneva); Professor of International Law, University of the West Indies (on leave). However, despite his busy schedule, Vasciannie still makes time to give back to KC.
“Since my return home, my involvement with KC has been primarily in the area of the Schools' Challenge Quiz. I have helped, as time allows, with the coaching of teams from about 1994 to the present. For me, it's a labor of gratitude and honor. I honor the contribution that others have made to my intellectual and personal development by trying to help with the KC quiz tradition. I always remember the comment of a former KC Principal that the quality of the academic intake at KC is improved whenever the school wins the quiz. This is how I try to contribute to raising standards at the College.”
Vasciannie is also Chairman of the David “Wagga” Hunt Memorial Scholarship Committee. Hunt, a KC old boy and former KC, Calabar and Jamaica national youth football coach, passed away suddenly in 2007. A scholarship has been established in his name at KC and Calabar.
What is most appealing about Vasciannie is his quiet dignity and humility despite his lofty achievements; the pretentiousness and huge ego which is all too common among great achievers is refreshingly absent from his personality.
“Vasciannie’s academic reputation preceded him when he turned out for fourth form quiz practice, and his many correct answers to numerous questions quickly confirmed it,” says Dr. Ivor Nugent, a former member of the Schools’ Challenge team, who helped to prepare fourth formers for quiz competitions. “His humility and the fact that he is so easily approachable is also delightful.”
Stephen Vasciannie is truly an intellectual giant and, equally important, a person of grace, integrity and character, His achievements have made both KC and the country exceedingly proud. Adolph Barclay, captain of the 1980 Schools’ Challenge team, provides an apt description of Vasciannie’s influence and ongoing impact. “Oftentimes, we aren’t able to appreciate greatness and humility in the moment. That’s my first thought when reflecting on Vassi. The humility and patience I gained from him in 4 years will last me a lifetime. From study sessions at KC and Taylor Hall (UWI), to learning the discipline to put in whatever time the task at hand required, the life skills learned from him over 30 years ago are more relevant now than then.”
“KC has influenced my life in ways too numerous to mention. Above all, KC has instilled in me a commitment to progress, integrity and love for equality of treatment. The school's motto has been a guiding light in my life, although, of course, we should all try to minimize the number of times we may fall, ” says Vasciannie.
Vasciannie, along with wife, Lisa, and sons, Sean (7) and Dominic (5), reside in Kingston, Jamaica.