For a great many, it is strongly urged that we have a finely tuned elevator pitch. It sums up who we are to a captured party—especially when solicited. Still, others achieve such status and a boilerplate is necessary. This solidifies accomplishment, authenticity, and aura, and its repetition lends constant emphasis and reminder of the same.
Then there are those who present credentials—not like that submitted out of frustration in Culture’s Natty Never Get Weary, but out of accord and protocol. Credentials as presented by our esteemed colleague and fellow Fortis brother, Stephen Vasciannie, to the Organization of American States in his capacity as Jamaica’s new permanent representative and as Jamaica’s eleventh Ambassador to the United States to President Barack Obama.
His Excellency Professor Stephen Charles Vasciannie, while not forgetting that he is neither the first, nor hopefully the last, Kingston College Old Boy to shoulder such responsibilities, Kingston College students both past and present are indeed proud of his accomplishments and his present contributions as a KCOB, especially in this 50th year of independence for our island nation. And for the sixth form class of 1976 - 1978, the latest chapter, while it evokes warm feelings, not only solidifies everything we have expected from and known about him over the years but confirms the mantra that, with him, past is prologue.
Recently we had an opportunity to reflect on our friend and classmate (Stephen/Vas/Vasci) and the qualities that we saw during school and have recognized as being part and parcel of who he is.
Undoubtedly, one of the most compelling qualities about Stephen is his approach to and belief in academics. This approach has always been one of both amazement and admiration.
The part of Stephen that I would like to talk about is his academic brilliance and the ease with which he has carried great expectations. I was a year ahead of him and did not start hearing about his academic brilliance until I was in the second or third form. Although our paths did not cross often in the early years, I would see him from time to time on the campus, and he appeared to be like any other youngster his age. Vasci racked up academic accolades at every stage of his high school career, to the point that he became legendary. Of course, every KC man worth his salt thought that, given the right situation, we could match him if we were to put our minds to it.
I got my chance to do just that when, after repeating the fifth form, we met up in the sixth form. I was angry with myself for having repeated a grade and thought I was ready to do real work now. We did the General Paper, Economics, and History together. I was comfortable with these subjects and thought that I would put my theory to the test that he could be bested.
I did not succeed, as he always got a higher mark than I and most everyone else…all the time. I would take his papers from him (which he gladly shared) to examine what was different on his. What I found was that he had been able to capture every salient point that was needed to ace the paper. There were times that I had all the points also, but he said it so succinctly that he always used fewer words to say it…and with a style that gave the teacher no option but to grade the paper the way she did. And it was always done with grace and equanimity. –Winston “Ras” Henry
While most of us would put this in the annals of ”memories of big pocket money,” I remember Stephen saying that his first scholarship came as a result of his father promising him ten shillings if he did well one school year in primary school. This he did, and collected his first of many scholarships and awards. –Orville “Becky” Beckford
Our class had sheep and goats. If I were in any doubt of that, I was reminded by the erstwhile Stanley Been who was always proud to, as he would say, “separate the sheep from the goats.” I re-acquainted myself with Mr. Been a few years ago in the Turks and Caicos Islands where I have relocated from the fickle climes of New York. He had the same pistol-packing gait even if slowed by age and I was happy to see him and to reintroduce myself. Of course, Mr. Been did not have a clue who I was even though he taught us math for 3 consecutive years at North Street. The truth is he seemed mildly offended by my approach until I mentioned that I was in Vasciannie’s class. He was electrified by the mention of the name and went on to speak for what I thought was an eternity about Vasci. I am still not sure whether he actually remembered me. Mr. Been proved to me that day while I may be forgettable, Vasci is not, and has never been a man that one can easily forget. – Oliver A. “Halfpint” Smith
His Uncanny Approach
But as much as he is admired for his academic exploits, it is his uncanny approach to academics—and indeed life—that will always stay with us.
My favorite recollection is in lower six, when Mrs. Brown asked us to write a history goblet on the coming abolition. Most of us, it seemed, took the straight and predictable path by quoting from text, etc. When papers were being returned, Mrs. Brown suggested that we read Vas’s piece to get some idea of how we could approach future goblets. From my recollection, his goblet started, “While sitting on my porch looking at the estate....” It was a conversation between two planters discussing the issue. That captures the essential difference of Vas in that he usually shifted things one notch up, and I (and most of the rest of us) benefited from those notches every time. A footnote to the story was that most of us could not remember where their goblet was after Mrs. Brown read Vas’s goblet. I, for one, lost mine a minute afterwards. –Donovan Dowie
I remember Ms. Morse doing an autopsy of our performances, based on the reports of the visiting examining professeure, after GCE French oral exams. While encouraging, she spoke of Stephen’s creativity. Two questions that we both shared were, “Where is your favorite place to take your girlfriend and why?” The other was, “If you were given $1,000, what would you do with it?”
My answers in Jamaican-accented French: A. The movies, so we can eat popcorn. B. Use the money for prisoner rehabilitation.
Vas’ answers, in lilted French: A. The Library. There are “keep quiet” signs all over so you have an excuse to whisper in her ear. B. Count it.
I got a C. He got an A. –E. K. Scott
We all knew Stephen as a brilliant student during our days at KC, and yet he was never boastful or unkind. I wondered what the source of such a combination was. Well, I believe that this was partially answered when I met Stephen’s mother back in the 1980s. I found her to be hard-working, personable, gentle, and very humble, and have no doubt that Vasci inherited like qualities from her. –Kingsley “Screechy” Mitchell
When I think of Vasci, the one thing that stands out in my mind is his humility. It is quite commendable that, despite his many accomplishments, I have never experienced him being a haughty fellow (perhaps a fellow at Oxford, but one when dealing with his peers). Neither have I heard anyone made a comment that him “bright and boasy wid it.” I believe that that is a testament of the measure of the man. He has accomplished much, a lot more that the combination of many lives, yet he maintained that quiet humility. To me that speaks volumes. Carlton “Con” Francis
When Vas went to Oxford, I went to New York. We communicated utilizing “par avion” letters. In one such letter, I asked him to send me an Oxford T-shirt. An Oxford T-shirt would offer a snob appeal profile in NYC. He wrote, “EK, you don’t think I would enjoy wearing a Baruch College T-shirt?” Point made. We never exchanged shirts. My little daughter, his god child, received and profiled in one during infancy. –E. K. Scott
The claims of Vas being a sports all-rounder may bear some credence in some circles. After all, we went to KC where talent abounded and many during that era were relegated to greatness in their own minds and in their respective communities where awe was synonymous with purple and white. Yes, he didn’t grace “Wembley” as often as others did to hone his box football skills but there were many classics played by the Chemistry Lab and in shortened versions in any available hallways where he kept count of his goals and salads. That he may have been relegated to Form and Hurlingham Avenue legend status is nothing to discount. Who did you expect him to “dig out?” Michael Holding, Mark Neita, Marlon Tucker, Michael “Ratty” Edwards, Douggie Bell, Jubba Rhudd or Robert Rodney? Maybe he stood a better chance at upstaging Brother Dennis in Table Tennis if certain domestic ploys could be engaged at home. But then, Dennis was the National Men’s Table Tennis Champion. – E. K. Scott
Vasci was more than a scholar. Vasci was a “big balla.” Staf always said he made the form “A” team because “he had new boots” but that’s not true. Vasci was truly a “big balla” with an eye for a clinical pass. Vasci was also a good cricketer with a broad bat and a palatable off-break. He was also a decent table tennis player and it was not because, as Staf would say, “im ave a TT board at him yard,” it was just difficult to beat Vasci in a “one love chip” game whether we were playing on the teacher’s table or kneeling down on the pavilion at Melbourne. Oliver A. “Halfpint” Smith
Several years ago, a classmate of ours ran into dire straits and was stranded somewhere in urban Illinois. His was a complex situation which evoked varying degrees of sentiments. Stephen reached out to him. What he recalls is that Stephen never questioned him about his situation, but rather inquired of his well-being, offered support and “a few shillings.” Orville “Becky” Beckford
After leaving KC I ran into Vasci a few times, and he always had a warm smile and greeting for me. Then there was that period when he was living in NY that some of us would get together for lunch down in the Village. He was always at ease and did not have any airs about him. Those lunch affairs were relaxed affairs, with everyone reminiscing about the old times. No matter how many high-level posts he was appointed to, he never seemed to be stressed to the extent to wipe his smile from his face. To this day he answers ALL of my e-mails within a day, and I wonder how he’s able to do so with the workload that he has always carried. I am sure that as a human being there is some detraction that can be said about the man, but I will leave that for someone else to do, because I haven’t seen it. –Winston “Ras” Henry
When I made the decision to stop studying A-Level European History at the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, it was child’s play. The syllabus took us through 1945, but I was adamant that I “ain’t gonna study war no more,” and that 1789 to 1914 was enough material. I told Vas of my decision and, quite honestly, don’t remember his reaction. Then again, there might not have been any. A few weeks later, he asked me an arbitrary question about the complex German-Danish Schleswig-Holstein. I didn’t even know how to spell it correctly. He advised, “E.K., always write down words that are new or foreign to you. You will never forget how to spell them.” A few weeks later we got together and, amidst a buffet of European History past papers and, I know I am being anachronistic, his Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, we worked out the probability of questions appearing that year. I prepared and knew eight topics well—including Schleswig-Holstein. Seven of the eight appeared on the exam. I had to do five. Had I done the same with him for West Indian History, I would have gotten a distinction for history. –E. K. Scott
I recall that during 1st and 2nd form Vasci would invite a group of us to his house. On Saturdays I would leave Waterhouse and take a # 37 bus to Meadowbrook. We would play football, cricket, and table tennis but more importantly, we would eat the type of meal that was not readily available to people like Lloyd Wynter and me. With the benefit of the intervening years, I am convinced that Vasci recognized our needs and in opening his home to us he was determined to do his part to help to satisfy them without making us feel less than. That is a great quality in a 12 year old.
It is difficult not to envy a man whose touch turns things to gold and who in so many ways walks about the narrow world like a colossus. But none of us could envy Vasci. We are all too busy being proud of his successes and eager to tell all within and out of earshot, that he is our friend. – Oliver A. “Halfpint” Smith
I recall seeing Vas heading to work at said law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, quite late one morning. This seemed surprising to me, knowing the industriously hard worker that he is. I had to ask the question, how is it that he was going to work that late? Of course, the answer should have been self-evident, that he was not in fact just going in but instead returning to work, with a brief respite at home, after an all-nighter at the office. –Kingsley “Screechy” Mitchell
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. So, once during the school when we heard that whilst attempting to board a Jolly Joseph bus (time machine needed) Stephen’s foot was run over by the bus, we were all sickened by it, feared for his health, and wondered how much school he would miss. We didn’t have to wait long; he came to school with a crutch and his foot heavily bandaged. –Orville “Becky” Beckford
Vasci has spent his working life giving back to KC and to Jamaica. His work at the Norman Manley Law School has lifted its profile as is evidenced by the many top place finishes it has enjoyed in international mooting competitions.– Oliver A. “Halfpint” Smith
Calm and Cool Weathering the Storm
In spite of his humble nature, I can't forget the almost supernatural aura that he gave the KC quiz team, as its captain, on the way to a championship back in the 1970s. In one sequence, the buzzer was pressed too quickly by KC before the question was complete. From the few words that were read (maybe three), it was impossible to know or predict what question was being asked, much less present a valid response! Unbelievably, the team answered correctly. The awestruck moderator, Dennis Hall, looked on incredulously and asked, “What was the question?” The team captain coolly responded, “Is the answer correct?” Another win for KC .. Kingsley “Screechy” Mitchell
The calm and cool that we have seen throughout school has helped him and has been evident through well publicized events. Without stirring up the proverbial mess, some of the more notable events that have made us, as KCOB, quite defensive of the media debate, have been the National Democratic Movement issue(s), the Solicitor General snub, and the Air Policy Committee Chairmanship. Yet through all this, he has been a calm and stable voice. In my discussions with him, he has never been disparaging but has maintained a calm sense of decorum and has appeared unshaken. Fortis! –Orville “Becky” Beckford
Not so long ago I spoke with Vasci about his pending move to the diplomatic service. He expressed concerns about his students and a little anxiety of the new road he was about to trod. In all of this he was calm, never boastful and wearing that almost boyish smile that was part of his hunting arsenal back in the day said “Half Pint” (he still calls me by my full nickname) “let’s see how it guh.” – Oliver A. “Halfpint” Smith
It is rare in lower sixth that you are summoned to the headmaster’s office. Yet, here we were, a few us, in the spring of 1977, being chastised by the Late Reverend Canon Dr. John McNab. Our crime? In deference to a need for a “proper diet,” we had wandered to purchase cornbread, butter, patty, and cheese from Mr. Chin during school hours and during an imposed “buy canteen campaign.” Among the things that stuck with us as we sat sated, was that we were privileged and that wearing white shirts was one of such given privileges. And then he went New Testament on us, “…to whom much is given, from him much will be (expected) required.” We were quite incensed and left his office with like interpretations of privileged. Vas, however, had a calm, and focused on “The Head’s” parting words quoted from Luke. Whatever. We organized a boycott of the canteen on a Friday shortly thereafter in demand of better service and choices. The entire lower sixth, with the exception of three, wore khaki shirts to school that day. While Vas joined us in solidarity, my memory will always be fixed on his fixation on Dr. McNab’s New Testament reference. –E. K. Scott
Grounded in Foundation
Speak to Vas and he will forever expound the words of Wordsworth’s “Ode to Nature”: the child is father of the man. As such, his approach has always been an unrelenting belief in the foundation laid in one’s formative years. Without any hesitation, he gives reverence and credit to Sister Mary Cabrini, Gloria Cunningham, and other teachers at St. Richards Primary School, who laid the early institutional foundation for his education. His public reference of appreciation was clearly stated when, in an editorial at her passing, he wrote, “We prayed, for instance, for the suffering children in the Biafran crisis in the late 1960s,” while making sure to add that “naturally, Sister did not indicate whether her sympathies lay with the secessionist forces in that conflict.” Secession from Nigeria was immaterial. What was important was the need and providing for that need. And his many kind acts and sacrifices seemed to have had this at the base of his benevolence. One of the greatest benefactors of this give-back has been our beloved alma mater. While much can be quantified, it would be embarrassing to our colleague, and friendship-testing were those to be made public. Suffice it to say that his has been less of quid pro quo but more of Luke 12:48. While we thank him for his tireless efforts, while juggling so much more, he is thankful for the calm influence of older brother Dennis in influencing the no-brainer decision to attend KC and his penchant for all things Fortis.
For those who are old enough to remember, as well as students of our, at least in my mind, most recent history, we must put our sixth form history in perspective. As all of us can attest, as it relates to their relative years, we were stimulated, bombarded, provoked, inspired, encouraged, challenged, guided, entertained, saddened, and prepped by a smorgasbord of events. A sampling of ours included Donald Quarrie’s historic gold; Spy Robinson; the Orange Lane fire; Kerry Packer; Two Sevens Clash; the Bauxite levy and struggle for significant percentage acquisition; Gun Court constitutionality; Smile Jamaica Concert; Michael Manley, Eddie Seaga, Tony Spaulding, Hugh Small, D.K. Duncan, and Pearnel Charles; May 19, 1977 and its associated events; Cindy Breakspeare; Green Bay Killing; Crash Program and Crash Program Workers; the 1976 State of Emergency; Stephen Biko; Richard “Danny Germs” Austin; the marrying of steel wool to Bully Beef; shooting of Bob Marley; Cuban schools, Cuban scholarships, Cuba; Apartheid—the remaining constant; the dormancy of the Worker’s Liberation League; Phillip Agee and the CIA; the IMF; One Love Peace Concert; Socialism, Democratic Socialism, Communism, and Capitalism; and Destabilization. Entwined in all these debates and discussions were KC’s exploits over the years in sports, the classrooms, and the Jamaican society at large; Ms. Riley’s famous alliteration (fickle, frivolous fools) in response to our “successful” canteen boycott; Charlton Collie’s unmatched competitiveness; Norman Kerr’s temporary Africa-inspired name change; Halfpint singing the first six words of the Mighty Diamonds’ Africa; SFA, Interact; Desnoes and Geddes’ Ting; Trinity’s Three Piece Suit an’ T’ing; and even our own personal T’ing. And, of course, other burning desires of the masses.
In the midst of it all was Stephen. He waxed poetically. He lent his opinion—more forcefully on some issues than others. And, he had an opinion on everything—as we all did—and was willing to offer the same, diplomatically. But his was always the voice of reason. Most of us were blindly, unashamedly, and unwaveringly politically aligned. He was not; and added, more often than not, to our dead-heat debates by posing his patented, “Let me ask you.” Of course this inspired more debates but, more importantly, prompted more serious thoughts among us. You see, Stephen had our respect and admiration. He was fair. He was our Headboy and he was accorded diplomatic status, not just for our sixth form cohorts, but for the entire Kingston College student body during that era. His credentials and personality dictated this. He was our ambassador.
Today, an attempt at his boilerplate would disregard templates and suggested lengths and would read almost biographically, albeit précised, as such:
Stephen Vasciannie is the Jamaican Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States of America. He is also the Jamaica’s Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), and former Chairman of the Permanent Council of the OAS.
Before entering the Jamaican diplomatic service as Ambassador, on July 16, 2012, Stephen Vasciannie served as the Principal of the Norman Manley Law School, based at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus (from 2008 to 2012). He also served as a part-time lecturer in International Law at the UWI, Mona Campus, and in Human Rights Law for Masters level students at the Cave Hill, St. Augustine and Mona Campuses of the UWI.
For the five-year period leading up to his ambassadorial appointment, Stephen Vasciannie was also an active member of the United Nations International Law Commission, the U.N. body mandated to promote the codification and progressive development of International Law throughout the world. He also served as an Adjunct Professor at Stetson University, lecturing in Caribbean Human Rights Law.
Stephen Vasciannie was appointed Professor of International Law by UWI in 2002, after serving there as a Senior Lecturer from 1994. Between 2003 and 2004, he acted as the Head of the Department of Government, UWI, and then served as Head of that Department from 2004 to 2007.
In addition, for approximately four years from 2004 to 2008, the then Professor Vasciannie worked, first as a Consultant in the Attorney General’s Chambers, and then as a Deputy Solicitor General responsible for International Affairs in the Government of Jamaica. During this period, he represented the Government of Jamaica, as part of a team led by the Solicitor General, before the Privy Council, represented the country before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and served as the Chairman of the Air Policy Committee of Jamaica, responsible for negotiating air traffic treaties with various countries.
Ambassador Vasciannie, a Kingston College Old Boy, served as the Chairman of the Board of his alma mater before moving to Washington D.C. He has also served on the Board of Scotiabank Jamaica and related Scotiabank boards, and chaired Scotia Investments Jamaica Limited, leaving to take up to his current appointment.
He holds a First Class Honours degree in Jurisprudence from the University of Oxford. His Economics degree from the University of the West Indies in 1981 was described as “the best result ever in the Faculty of Social Sciences” and his LL.M. degree from Cambridge was awarded as a Starred First Class Honours. His doctorate is from Oxford.
Ambassador Vasciannie is married to Lisa who, until recently, was a lecturer at the University of the West Indies. They have two sons, Sean and Dominic.
For us, his sixth form colleagues, however, with pride, reverence, and love, it reads that through it all, he has lived up to everything that we could have ever imagined of him. And, as Jamaica celebrates its milestone independence, we celebrate that it has chosen one of our favorite sons. As a Kingston College Old Boy, he has exuded the qualities that will make us, and indeed all Jamaica, proud. In him they have chosen a humble, balanced, dedicated academician with an uncanny approach who takes great pride in relationships created, and is so grounded in a solid foundation that he will weather all storms with calm and cool guaranteeing a successful three years. What is refreshing is that in doing so, he will continue to be the Stephen we know and have enjoyed—true, unwavering, and constant as his trademark hint of sideburns, mini afro and a penchant to write with medium-point, blue-ink ballpoint pens. Indeed, past is prologue.