Dr. Harold Drayton's 'Accidental Life' celebrated
June 21, 2018
In the midst of an 80-day general strike that crippled Guyana in 1963, Dr. Harold Drayton somehow managed to work around the dangerous civil unrest to establish the University of Guyana (UG).
Barely 10 months after acquiescing to late President Dr. Cheddi Jagan’s request to return home after a 13-year-absence to lead the historic process, the national university opened at Queen’s College which was the temporary home for the first six years before the Turkeyen campus was launched in 1970.
Drayton, who was 33 years old at the time and a first-year zoology lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology in Ghana, passed away in his 88th year on March 11 in Maryland.
The University of Guyana Guild of Graduates Ontario (UGGGO) celebrated the eminent academic life and launched his 912-page memoir, ‘An Accidental Life’, in Toronto on May 5.
UGGGO founding member Harry Hergash, who was among 179 students selected for admission to the university’s first-year classes, became a close friend of Drayton.
“Upon reflection, I believe he was the right man for the job,” said the 1969 graduate who was awarded the natural sciences department Most Outstanding Student prize. “It wasn’t his decision whether UG should be independent of the University of the West Indies. It was his decision to give Guyana an independent university as the politicians had already made that decision.”
Drayton was UG’s first deputy vice-chancellor and the head of the biology department from 1963 to 1972.
Hergash was one of 25 students in Drayton’s first biology class.
“None of the professors I had could compare with Harold,” he said. “He was a staunch nationalist who strongly believed that UG had a key role to play in promoting racial understanding and national unity. For that reason, the degree programs were designed so that students had to do courses in world civilization and Caribbean history. He taught a social biology course which was compulsory for those studying social sciences & the arts. It was one of the courses that made UG very unique…He was not only my professor, but a friend and mentor. In my view, he was one of the Caribbean’s most foremost intellectuals."
Taharimoon Ali, who spent five years at UG, said Drayton deeply cared about his students.
“Not only was he an incredible lecturer and educator, but he was always interested in you as a person,” she pointed out. “He was always encouraging you to do better. He imbued in me the desire to work harder. This was a man who had a special way of building your confidence and making you feel that you could do anything. In addition, he was the best example of a disseminator of knowledge.”
‘An Accidental Life’ provides a portrait of Drayton who played a major role in the history of education and health in the Caribbean. During his tenure at UG, he introduced curriculum and training for public health professionals that are widely adopted across the region.
University of Toronto associate professor Dr. Alissa Trotz attended Drayton’s funeral and spoke at the celebration of his life and the book launch.
He was the best man at her parents wedding in 1965 in Guyana.
“Harry was absolutely a staunch nationalist, but he was only that because he was also always a Caribbean regionalist and he was that because he was always a socialist internationalist,” said Trotz who was a law student at UG in 1995. “In other words, what allowed him to be Guyanese came by a geo-political literacy that was truly international and it reached out beyond borders.
“It is important for us to remember that because today, our country and those of us in the Diaspora are afflicted by all kinds of parochialisms that breed a certain kind of ridiculous illiteracy. It is either that we are Guyanese and we are better than somebody else or there is the race and class thing. The book really reminds us of something larger and grander. It reminds us of another way to be Guyanese and there are so many incredible examples in this book.”
Anyin Choo, Guyana’s new consul general in Toronto and a UG graduate, also paid tribute to Drayton who, because of political circumstances, was forced to relocate to Barbados in 1972.
“Even though his career took him to different places around the world, he always stayed connected to Guyana and was always willing to provide his expertise in whatever way he could,” said Choo who has a computer science diploma from UG. “…I shudder to think what might have been if there was no UG. What would have happened to the thousands of graduates who benefitted from the strong academic foundation laid by Professor Drayton and his colleagues who worked feverishly to realize the dream and the vision of our tertiary education institute that is UG?”
Blindsided by the announcement that the UGGGO – which has been dormant since 2014 after its establishment 22 years ago – would cease to exist after the event, Choo promised to work with Hergash to resuscitate the organization and bring younger graduates residing in the province into the fold.
Earlier this year, the UGGGO sent its last remaining funds – Can$5,300 – to be used to refurbish the library.
Hergash said the nine awards the organization established for UG students will continue.
“The awards are funded by the interest and the money we invested in trust accounts in Guyana,” he added.
An award, named after Drayton, is presented to the student who demonstrates outstanding leadership during the academic year.
Drayton’s wife of 20 years, Guyanese-born Dr. Vonna Drayton – an epidemiologist and former UG project manager – attended the event.