Harold Drayton’s legacy will live on

Dear Editor,

Dr Harold Drayton, the individual who was tasked by then Premier Cheddi Jagan to establish the University of Guyana (UG) in 1963, passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning, March 11, in the United States. He became ill on Friday and was rushed to the hospital where he died. He was my Biology professor and close friend. On behalf of myself and my family to whom he endeared himself, and his many friends in the now dormant Ontario Chapter of the UG Guild, I extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife Vonna, children Alison and Richard, his grandchildren, and his siblings. We are deeply saddened by his passing.

Harold Drayton was born in Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1929 and grew up with a doting mom and stepfather. Of them, in his memoir published late last year under the title An Accidental Life, he writes “together and cooperatively [they] made it possible for me to survive, to grow and develop both physically and intellectually, and gave me my earliest insights into the world, beauteous and hideous, that mankind has made”. The book was launched at the UG through the office of Dr Barbara Reynolds, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Planning and Inter-national Engagements, and supported by a number of organizations. A Toronto launch by the Ontario Guild is scheduled for May 5, 2018. This event will now evolve into a celebration of his life.

He was one of Guyana’s most brilliant sons and a Caribbean intellectual who has not received the recognition he so rightly deserves. Both the PNC and the PPP led governments have not seen it fit to recognize him with a national award. For the sake of the historical record, this article repeats some of my previous writings on this outstanding, patriotic Guyanese. Upon learning of his death, a fellow UG alumnus wrote “He was an icon”.

Drayton received his secondary education at Modern High School where one of his classmates was Sir Shridath Ramphal, whose father was the founder and Principal of the school, and later, at Queen’s College. In 1948 he won an open scholarship to the University College of the West Indies, Jamaica, now University of the West Indies, but was soon expelled because of his left wing political activism. After a stint of high school teaching in Jamaica, he entered the University of Edinburgh, Scotland where he completed his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees before taking up a lectureship position in Ghana. In December 1962, he heeded Dr Jagan’s call to return home and take on the “university project”.

As Technical Advisor on higher education to the Guyana Government, he worked feverishly and under difficult conditions to transform the government’s vision into reality, thereby creating a national institution which, in 2013, celebrated its 50th anniversary. Starting from scratch, in less than ten months he was able to get the UG operational with classes commencing in October 1963.

As if getting legislation in place, recruiting students, hiring staff, and finding accommodation were not challenges enough, Georgetown was paralyzed by an eighty-day general strike, including a strike of civil servants, from around the middle of April to the beginning of July 1963, with ensuing disturbances and violence.  This was the environment in which members of the first batch of students, were interviewed in an old building on Brickdam by a selection panel comprised of Dr Drayton, Mr Eddie Gilbert, a secondee from the Ministry of Education who became the first registrar of UG, Dr Gyanchand, a United Nations advisor in the country at the time, and Mr Fred Case, Chief Education Officer of the Ministry of Education.

He was instrumental in establishing a core curriculum of compulsory courses to provide a well-rounded education to students in all faculties. The benefit of courses such as Social Biology, which he taught, and Caribbean Studies were later recognized and promoted by older and more prestigious universities. And his initiatives in the Biology Department such as the training of medical technologists, etc, subsequently evolved into a full Faculty of Health Sciences for the training of health care professionals. Undoubtedly, he was one of the most popular lecturers and one of the very few individuals who lectured to students in all three faculties of the UG at that time.

After leaving UG in 1971, he joined PAHO as a consultant in Human Resources Development, stationed in Barbados. During this time he worked extensively to improve health education in the region while still maintaining contacts and providing advice to UG and the Ministry of Health. In 1989 he moved to the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas, USA, as Director, WHO Collaborating Centre for Inter-national Health and Professor of Preventative Medicine where he remained for ten years. Again, he visited Guyana frequently providing advice to the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Ministry of Health, occasionally securing funding for various projects.

He spent his retirement living in the US; however, his heart remained in Guyana. He was very excited when a chapter of the UG Guild was established in Toronto in 1993. In 2002, he contributed the largest chapter in the book University of Guyana: Perspectives on the Early History, published by this chapter. During the more than twenty years of the active life of this chapter, he visited Toronto almost every year to attend the annual dinner and dance and reconnect with his former students who loved him dearly. On those occasions, over dinner and drinks at my home, we would spend many hours chatting about Guyana and the UG. Until just before his passing we kept in contact on a regular basis, spending hours on each call.

Harold Drayton is gone but his legacy will live on. The UG which was derogatively called ‘Jagan’s night school’ when it was established, is now a national institution and expanding still.

In 1995, the Ontario Guild established at the UG an annual award in his name for a student who demonstrates the most outstanding leadership during the year.

Yours faithfully,

Harry Hergash

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