Capt. Charles Leonard Kirkconnell, OBE, 1922-2010

| 02/03/2010

Charles Leonard Kirkconnell was born on 6th December, 1922, in his maternal grandmother’s house which was at the corner of South Church Street and Boilers Road, Grand Cayman. He was the second child of Capt. Charles Gerald Kirkconnell and Olivine Elizabeth nee Eden. Olivine was a descendant of William Eden, one of the original settlers of Grand Cayman – in the late 1700’s.

Charles had a rich heritage, but was not raised with the proverbial ‘silver spoon’. He was the product of his time when ‘survival’ was the name ofthe game and the values of hard work, honesty and integrity were instilled in him and his siblings by their parents who endured many difficulties in order to succeed.

Charles was born into a family of seafarers. Both his grandfathers were sea captains. His paternal great-grandfather, William Maitland Kirkconnell came to Grand Cayman in the early 1840’s. In Hirst’s Notes on the History of the Cayman Islands, he is listed as a juror in an 1849 obeah trial. William was an Ensign on a British Navy ship that was returning to England from Jamaica when it was shipwrecked on the south coast of Cuba. He was brought from there to Grand Cayman on a Caymanian schooner so that he could return to Scotland on one of the many vessels that would stop here for turtles and water for their return voyage to Europe. However, he did not return to Scotland – he settled here instead – until approximately 1867 when he went to live in Honduras. He became a ship owner and captained his own vessel.

William had a son, Walter Aaron, from whom all Caymanian Kirkconnells are descended. He was born on 30th June, 1854 on Cayman Brac. His mother was Sarah Ryan, nee Foster. Walter Aaron was a very ambitious and enterprising man with a lot of grit and determination. In 1894, he started selling basic necessities such as flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, margarine and kerosene oil from his kitchen. This was the first merchandising venture for the Kirkconnell family. Two years later, he completed the building of his first sailing vessel, the Eva Swift. In 1904, on his deathbed, he told his seven sons: Reginald – William – Ebert – Moses – Walter – Nathaniel and Charles Gerald (4 of whom were lost at sea), that if they wanted to be successful, they must stick together – and they heeded his advice. Each succeeding generation has seen the wisdom of that advice and although few are left in the Cayman Islands, there is a very strong bond between the family members and Charles was one of the anchors that helped keep them together.

Charles spent his early years in Tampa, Florida and went to school there. After the 1932 hurricane devastated Cayman Brac, Mr. Aston Rutty persuaded Charles’ father to return and help rebuild the Brac. The family returned to live in Cayman Brac in 1933, and Charles went to school on the Brac until 1939 when his father sent him to Munro College in Jamaica. When he arrived there, he found that he was strong in only two subjects, English and Math. He had only two years to catch up on the other subjects – but he was upto the task and in 1941, he earned his Cambridge School Certificate. His headmaster was very pleased with his results and wrote him a congratulatory letter, an excerpt which reads as follows:-

“Congratulations on passing your School Certificate, and on getting such a good one. You obtained credits in History, Geography, French and Mathematics, and you passed in English Language , English Literature and Religious Knowledge. In History you came equal first. You worked exceptionally well all the time you were with us, and we are all delighted over a success that was thoroughly deserved.”

Shortly after leaving school, Charles accepted a job with the Bank of Nova Scotia in Jamaica. He had no plans to go to sea, he wanted to work on land. However, before he could leave Cayman Brac to go to Jamaica, his father had an accident. His father’s ship, the Rubens, was in Belize loading mahogany logs for Pensacola, Florida when his father broke his leg. At his mother’s insistence, Charles left home and joined his father‘s ship in Belize. One of the other family vessels, the M/V Allocate, was on her way from Jamaica to Belize and she stopped at Cayman Brac to take Charles to his father. Several weeks later, the Rubens returned to Cayman Brac and Charles’ father was replaced by Charles’ Uncle Reggie, who asked Charles to stay on the vessel with him, which Charles willingly agreed to do.

Charles found that he enjoyed sailing – he was able to use the skills his father taught him when he was a young boy sailing with him during his summer holidays. He knew how to read a compass, steer and do other jobs on the vessel. He enjoyed it so much that after a few months at sea, he decided to make the sea his career. In the early 1940’s, Charles was sailing with his father on the Kirksons when they got caught in an extremely strong hurricane off Isle of Pines, Cuba. During the hurricane, his father was concerned that the vessel’s anchors were dragging and asked for someone to volunteer to go to the bow of the ship and check if the anchors were holding. No one volunteered so Charles said he would go. He checked the anchors and when he was returning, a large wave knocked him off his feet and just as he was about to be washed overboard, he managed to grab onto the ship’s rigging. Later that night the anchors slipped and the vessel ran aground – but all on board were safe. It was many days before they could get word to Havana – and on to Cayman Brac – that they were safe. The vessel ended up three (3) miles inland sitting high and dry on top of mangroves. A channel had to be dredged up to the vessel to free her. A task that took three months to complete.

On 12th December, 1945, Charles earned his Mate’s Licence and on 16th January, 1946, he joined the United States Merchant Marine as 3rd Officer on the SS Somme, a T2 Tanker. He received an honourable discharge on 20th August, 1947. The tanker was first in the Philippines and then in the Mediterranean and Suez. He often enjoyed telling us that he was in Manila when Gen. MacArthur gave the Philippines their independence on 4th July, 1946.

On 14th March 1947, Charles gained his Masters Certificate from the Marine Board of Jamaica, and this enabled him to play an even bigger role in building up the family’s shipping business. There were many sea captains of his generation and they all worked together for the common goal of increasing the number and tonnage of ships owned and operated by their family.

In 1961, Charles’ father died and it was time for the next generation to take the helm. Charles stopped going to sea and, with his cousin Barton, managed the ships from their office in Kingston, Jamaica. Charles was ideally suited to do that because he was able, at a moment’s notice, to take the helm of any of their ships when a captain fell ill or had an emergency.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were troubling times on the Kingston waterfront. There was a lot of unrest – and there was a great push to unionize the Kirk Line ships, but Charles flatly refused to allow it. He took on the trade unions with the same strength of character and determination that have served him well throughout his lifetime. I remember well, spending a lot of time on my knees praying that he would return home safely.

In 1970, one of the trade unions ran the captain and crew off the vessel Kirk B and took control of her. After a few days, she began to list. Charles, being a man of action, decided that he was going to retake control of the ship – he was not going to allow her to sink at the dock. He, with the help of the Commissioner of Police, the crew and others, devised a daring plan to retake the ship. Early one morning they retook the Kirk B without a shot being fired. With Charles at the helm, the Kirk B left the dock. I remember watching (through binoculars) from our home on the hill, the Kirk B limping very slowly towards Port Royal. The crisis was over and the shipping company never had any more trouble with the trade unions.

That incident caused Charles to seriously consider returning home to the Cayman Islands and, in December, 1971, Charles moved to Grand Cayman with his young family. He came here to retire and possibly “dabble in a bit of real estate”. But that was not to be. He joined his brother, Eldon, in various commercial ventures inGrand Cayman and he took over the operation of Kirk Plaza Supermarket at the end of 1972. At the age of 50 years he began a completely new career of supermarket management and over the past thirty-seven years, with Charles at the helm, their holdings substantially increased.

On 26th May, 1944, Charles was united in marriage to Amy Foster and from that union, three children were born. Yorke Slader (who pre-deceased him on 27th June, 1989), Michael Gerald and Elizabeth Carolyn.

In December, 1965, he married Adelina Gallegos who became critically ill and sadly passed away in just a matter of months after their marriage.

In 1967, Charles met Carole through a mutual friend and they were married on the 4th January, 1969. From that union, three children were born: Brigitte Carole, Charles George and Kristine Diana.

Now turning to the continuation of Charles’ life in Cayman. Charles continued his supermarket management and kept occupied with other business ventures but never considered himself to be a politician nor did he have any thought of entering politics. However, in 1975, Charles’ very close friend, Capt. Ashton Reid, MLA for Cayman Brac and Little Cayman was gravely ill and he told Charles that he would not be able to stand in the next General Election and he wanted Charles to offer himself as a candidate for the seat. Capt. Reid died shortly after that and Charles being a man to his word, stood as a candidate and won the By-Election which was held in early 1976. Later that year, he was re-elected in the general election and served three terms with distinction (1976 – 1988) as one of the two Elected Representatives for Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. He was a member of Executive Council for two terms – eight years – and retired from office in 1988, but not from a continuous interest and support for what was best for the Cayman Islands. Charles was very pleased to serve on the Executive Council because he knew that was where he could be the most effective in helping the people of the Cayman Islands whom he always held in very high regard.

Charles served as the Executive Council Member responsible for Communication, Works & District Administration and that put him in an ideal position to help Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. He was especially interested in the welfare of the Sister Islands which were suffering economic hardship at that time. He recognized that if they were to get ahead, Cayman Brac needed to have the proper infrastructure. He was fortunate that his colleagues in the Legislative Assembly were also interested in helping the Sister Islands. As a result of this, the present dock, airport, hospital, across- the- bluff road, and the Aston Rutty Civic Centre all became a reality during his tenure in office.

Charles always said that he was fortunate that his colleagues shared his vision and voted the necessary funds to help the Sister Islands and the Cayman Islands in general. During his term of office, the country experienced a level of infrastructural development that continues to serve our country well today. Charles strongly believed that Government should be run as a business and he always applied hard-work, good business ethics and a measure of good common sense to any project that he dealt with on behalf of the Cayman Islands. He always considered that anything he did for the country, and whatever projects were completed, were all a genuine team effort and always gave credit where credit was due. The Master Ground Transportation Plan on record remains a cause that he championed without fear or favour.

At the end of Charles’ term in 1988, he did not stand for re-election. He felt that he had accomplished all that he set out to do and it was time for him to step aside. He took great satisfaction in knowing that he was able to help the people of the Cayman Islands and especially the people of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman – but he never spoke much about his accomplishments. His many deeds for charities, churches and community projects went unheralded because he was a very private man.

From time to time, his children would hear of something that he had done in the past, and they would say – “Dad, I didn’t know you did that!” Sometimes he would elaborate and sometimes he would just smile and say, “Yes, I did that.”

In 1991, Charles was awarded the O.B.E. for public service an award that he valued and accepted with great humility.

Charles loved the Lord. He committed his life to Christ in the mid 1970’s in the Chapel Church of God on the waterfront. More recently, he sought an even deeper relationship with Christ and was baptized by immersion on the 6th, September, 2009, by Dr. Randall Von Kanel at Smith’s Barcadere. His spiritual life was very important to him and he often quoted these lines: “Only one life ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last”. He sincerely believed that.

For over thirty-five years, it was Charles’ custom to read his Bible, meditate and pray every day. However, ten years ago, after his lung cancer surgery (his chance of survival was 30%), he used to say that God had given him extra time for a purpose and he set about seeking to do God’s will – to fulfill whatever purpose God had for him. He began making his decisions with eternity in mind and sought an even deeper walk with his Lord and Saviour.

He no longer desired to involve himself in the daily controversies of life and often when his family would be discussing a hot button issue, he would listen for a while and then say – “I’ve heard enough about that, find something else to talk about”. This once fiery middle-aged politician who was not afraid to take on with great passion any issue that came his way, had set his eyes toward Heaven and actively sought peace with his fellowman. He would often quote the lines of the well known hymn – “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace”.

It has been said that you are not truly prepared to live until you are prepared to die and Charles understood that. Often we make great preparations for how we will spend our retirement, which can be very fleeting, but give little thought as to how we will spend eternity.

When Charles learned that he had inoperable cancer of his esophagus and that his only option was chemotherapy, he said he was prepared for whatever God willed. He told me that God is Sovereign and, if He wanted him to live, he would be grateful – but if He was ready to call him home, he was ready to go.

During Charles’ last five days, he experienced a great deal of discomfort, caused by the effects of chemotherapy, but throughout his illness, he never had any pain. God had granted his wish. The morning of the day he died, Thursday, 18th February, his brain was still alert – and he was smiling. He knew he was coming home. Unfortunately, about two hours before his departure, he took a sudden turn for the worse. Charles returned home by air ambulance, and Drs. Vivek and Mohanty tended to him at home and settled him in his bed. At 7:45 p.m., he simply slipped away into a glorious eternity. His family is comforted by the fact that they were all able to see him one last time and that they had an opportunity to say their last good-byes.

Our family would like to express our heartfelt thanks and deep appreciation to Drs. Mohanty, Vivek and Ostroski for all their love, care and concern for Charles. Dr. Mohanty was always very kind to Charles and did everything he could to help him.

Dr. Vivek has been Charles’ family physician and dear friend for many years. I was always impressed with the excellent care he took of Charles. Although Charles was well cared for in hospital in Miami, he missed Dr. Vivek’s personal touch and we often wished we had Dr. Vivek beside us to explain the many things that perplexed us.

Dr. Ostroski is a true friend to all Caymanians, and he was a tower of strength to us. We have him to thank for putting Charles return on fast-track and getting him home so quickly. On Wednesday, he gave the orders to arrange for an air ambulance to take Charles home the following day and the lady in the office told him it could not be done. Dr. Ostroski then told her that if she couldn’t arrange it, then he would. With that, she started making the necessary telephone calls and everything was arranged within two hours! Charles always looked forward to Dr. Ostroski’s visits and his face would light up when he entered his room. Charles would always reach out to hold his hand and say to him – “My brother”.

During Charles’ long life, he had to face the loss of many loved ones. The passing of his first son Yorke in 1989, which was mentioned earlier, was extremely difficult for him. He lost his second wife, Adelina; his son-in-law, Len Leggett in 2008; his brother-in-law, Clendon (who was more like a brother to him), passed away in 2004; his sister, Alex (Clendon’s wife), preceded him in death in 2007. Charles loved Alex dearly and it is fitting that he will be buried next to her in the Garden of Memories.

Left to mourn the passing of Charles Leonard Kirkconnell are: his wife of forty-one years, Carole, and their children, Brigitte, Charlie and Krissy. His children by his first marriage, Mike and Beth and their mother Amy; son-in-law Patrick Shaughness and daughter-in-law Stacey. Grand children Wayne and Tom Kirkconnell, Matthew Leggett, Charles Jackson and Leila Kirkconnell and Erin and Nathaniel Shaughness; his brother and sister-in-law, Eldon and Pat Kirkconnell; three nephews: Gerry Kirkconnell, Don and Gary Foster and one niece: Debbie Guyton.

It can be rightly said that God blessed Charles with a long, prosperous, successful and fruitful life and, of his success, he always said: “It all belongs to God”.

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