MIAMI GARDENS — The Jamaican Diaspora in South Florida on Tuesday celebrated the life of Ralston “Rex” Nettleford with speeches, songs and dance.
The celebration at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in Miami Gardens was cultured and classy, low key and uplifting, the way Nettleford, a former University of West Indies professor, would have wanted it, some said.
Upon entering the church, the scene could have been a mid-week service. No pictures of Nettleford adorned the stage. A few bouquets of flowers sat at the rear of the stage.
The first signal that you were at a thanksgiving service for the famed choreographer and professor was the program: It featured Nettleford in his academic regalia on the cover, with dates showing the start of his life – Feb. 3, 1933 – and the end date, Feb. 2, 2010.
Around the church sat many notable Jamaicans: Ambassador Dudley Thompson, Consul General of Jamaica Sandra Grant Griffiths, poet Malachi Smith and many others from the cultural, educational and media landscape, plus four choirs.
The theme of the tributes: Nettleford was a national treasure who will be very hard to replace.
“Rex had a way of carrying Jamaica to the world,” Thompson said. “He brought honor to Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Many will follow in his footsteps but none will be able to fill his shoes.”
UWI Alumni Association South Florida Chapter President Margaret Barrett said the group is in the process of establishing the Rex Nettleford Foundation for Caribbean Cultural and Social Studies. The goal of the foundation is to raise $5 million over two years. She fondly remembered Nettleford, who lived at the university since the 1960s.
She said she saw his death as bittersweet.
“Rex, boy you toiled. You worked hard,” Barrett said. “Now you can rest.”
Numerous positive adjectives and adjectival phrases spoken on Tuesday described the man who founded The National Dance Theatre Company: selfless; key care taker; strategic intellect; scholar; artistic; dear friend and father; stoosh; and, amicably, prof.
“The cultural contributions that ‘prof’ gave to Jamaica was better than the occasional barrel or money that would be sent home,” said Marlon Hill, a member of the Jamaican Diaspora Advisory Board.
Nettleford died in the George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., a day before his 77th birthday. He was cremated in the United States. His funeral was Feb. 16 at the University of the West Indies Chapel.
Honors followed Nettleford, scores of them.
He earned an Order of Merit from Jamaica, a country he championed around the world and left only briefly for school as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford. He wrote several books, served as a statesman to many countries, and was an instructor to thousands.
In 2004, the Rhodes Trust established the Rex Nettleford Prize in Cultural Studies, tenable at UWI.
It is for these and other accomplishments that Thompson implored the audience to find out more about Nettleford.
“We must learn of the man, of what he said and of what he wrote,” Thompson said. “We must let our children know what Jamaica can produce: a man like Rex Nettleford.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Jamaican Ambassador Dudley Thompson speaks at the Feb. 23 celebration of Rex Nettleford’s life in Miami Gardens.