"Large was his bounty and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send,
He gave to Misery, all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven, 'twas all he wished, a Friend."
Thomas Gray, "Elegy written in a country Churchyard."
This is a time of celebration, remembrance and thankfulness for the life of our friend, Ashworth Elwin who left us for the other shore on August 19th past. Over the recent past two years or so, Ashworth suffered recurring and persistent medical problems culminating in a serious bout of pneumonia, and despite attentive medical care and the loving support of his wife, Carol, succumbed in the 73rd year of his life. After giving final instructions for his funeral arrangements, including drafting of the Order of Service, and in the presence of his wife and other family members, he breathed his last. His funeral service was attended by over five hundred Londoners from all walks of life, including Dominicans from all over the country. It was a testament to the high esteem in which he was held after an admirable life of public service to both his native land and his adopted home.
On behalf of his dear wife, Carol, who has now returned to work in London, his sister, Avis Mitchell, who is present with us, his extended family of nephews and nieces and in-laws from two marriages on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I thank you for coming to show your appreciation for his life and work and to support his family. On your behalf, I extend condolences to both Carol and Avis and their respective families and, in particular, his niece, Thea, and her three children Vanessa, Mitch and Keaton, and his niece Loretta Vidal, her children Hyacinth and Patrick and their children Especially during this time of loss, we assure them of our prayers and continuous concern as they face their future without the presence of husband, brother, uncle and friend.
It seems not long ago that in Dominica, students from the country districts venturing to high schools were obliged to travel to Roseau (the main town) and to "room and board" with families there during the three study terms of the school year. My brothers, sisters and I were no exception. One of the families which graciously took us in was the Elwin family.
Ashworth was the youngest of three children born to Oliver and Ada Elwin….two girls, Hyacinth (Cinthy) and Avis and himself. He had lost his father at the tender age of two years, and so was really raised by his mother, a school teacher, with the occasional supervision of his two older sisters. Looking back now, it must not have been comfortable and reassuring for him to have had his home invaded by a succession of strange children, and to have had his mother's care and attention shared with so many unrelated persons. This would have been, I am sure particularly unnerving during the teen years, which was when our acquaintanceship began and our friendship and respect for each other developed. Yet never during all this period did I ever hear a single word of reproach or feel the chill of resentment. I have no doubt that it was this environment and exposure that contributed to his inner strength and resilience and that nurtured the tolerance, patience and understanding that were the hallmarks of his later years.
It is a testament to the wisdom and parenting skills of his mother, the sensitive and thoughtful support of his sisters, the genuine camaraderie of his friends (some of whom are here today) and the strength of character of Ashworth himself that he grew to adulthood, well-rounded, well-adjusted and well-respected in so many ways.
Ashworth was a remarkably intelligent man, though not perhaps exceptionally brilliant academically. He, however, inherited various traits and cultivated various skills that endeared him to others and gained their admiration. He was slow to judge others and always preferred to see the good in everyone he met. He was open and trusting, never given to angry outburst or temperamental actions. He was a good listener and an excellent conversationalist and generally preferred to ask challenging questions rather than to emotionally contradict. He had an admirable sense of humour, laughed heartily with a twinkle in his eye, and could recall and recount long past incidents with amazing clarity. I recall enquiring six months after I had presented him with a copy of my book of poems whether he had completed reading it. "Good heavens", he exclaimed, "good verse is like good wine. It must be appreciated slowly."
He was an excellent and versatile sportsman with commendable competence in cricket (left-arm spin bowler), soccer (left wing), athletics (high jump) and table tennis. But my best recollection of him was as a pianist, though untrained and playing entirely by ear. He could keep an audience spell-bound for hours. I vividly recall his routine at the end of the school day on returning home, going directly to the piano and unwinding for about an hour. By his selections, one could invariably guess what kind of day it had been for him. Ashworth was a frequent actor on the local stage, both at school and in community productions, and will long be remembered for his absolutely remarkable tenor voice.
Soon after leaving the Grammar School, Ashworth emigrated to England as had many of his cohorts of the time and initially was employed with the London Transport System, which was a common entry point of employment for recent immigrants from the Caribbean. The worst of the Teddy Boys era was just over, but London was still smarting from rampant racial hostility in employment, housing and in social interaction. Ashworth weathered these trying and turbulent times and later moved on to more promising employment with the British Postal Service or Royal Mail. To quote from his funeral Eulogy, as recounted by his brother-in-law:
"……here (at the Royal Mail) in a short period of time (he) became involved in union activities. His talent at negotiation was honed at this time, representing his members' interests at Conference level. (He) was never confrontational. He knew the damage that could be done with militancy. His preference was always negotiation."
Recognizing these qualities and skills and the respect with which he was regarded by both black and white comrades, Ashworth was appointed a Justice of the Peace, a local magisterial position, which at a time of continuing hostility to new migrants, high discontent and delinquency among the youth, and especially black youth, placed him in the forefront of tempering justice with understanding, the law with mercy, punishment with innovative restitution. His successes brought him great satisfaction. Failures in repeat offenders were heart-rending. As a man of the community (black and white), Ashworth served in various capacities within the Dominica nationals organizations. This involvement extended to serving as a school governor (district school board trustee), always attempting to represent the interests of the immigrant communities and conveying to them the concerns of their white neighbours. Always the negotiator, the go-between, always searching for understanding and compromises.
In time he was approached by the Government of Dominica to assume responsibility for the nation's diplomatic mission in London, firstly as temporary Consul-General. It was a time of social and political tension at home and the country was still grappling with economic instability. Ashworth left the security of his employment to do his national service. He was the voice of Dominica in Britain. He was the face of Dominica to the numerous Dominican communities and organizations across the British Isles and the hand that helped and guided.
In 1992, he was appointed High Commissioner for Dominica to the Court of St. James by the then Prime Minister, Dame Eugenia Charles, a recognition of the work that he was doing and with the required accreditation to take that function to the higher diplomatic levels with Great Britain and with other Embassies and Commissions in London. From the previous tribute you will have heard the regard in which he was held by his fellow diplomats, colleagues and International Agencies in London. His advice was widely sought. His skills were widely admired. Sadly, his contributions remain largely unsung.
In his personal and family life Ashworth was twice married. Firstly, to Ivy an Englishwoman, who was his help-mate for over twenty years. A regular visitor to Dominica and a believer in the future of Dominica, Ivy was as much involved in assisting in addressing the problems of Dominicans in England as was Ashworth, and supported his work and efforts fully. They had no children. When Ivy passed away, Ashworth lapsed into a period of inconsolable loneliness. In 2000, he was restored to his former lively self when he remarried. His new bride, Carol, a Dominican lady who was a former colleague at the Commission, rekindled his interest and involvement in the community as well as in conditions in Dominica. Their home in Wembley was a regular stopping point for Dominicans visiting London. Oh, and Ashworth was a cook, par excellence, and never lost an opportunity to ensure that his guests left much heavier and happier than they came. Later, having demitted office and retired, and as Carol's work commitments permitted, they were able to undertake visits together to Dominica, the United States and to Canada and to make or renew ties with both their family members and friends. Through Carol, Ashworth inherited a large family of in-laws in England, Canada and Dominica. His sole remaining sibling Avis, and her immediate family remained one of his constant concerns and many's the time he would end his telephone call with, "now, don't forget to check in on Avis." (Don't worry, Ashworth, I won't.)
Sadly, in time, health challenges started to emerge to sap his strength and resilience. Six years ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of a visit with Ashworth and Carol and even then Ashworth was disconsolate by the prospect of increasing medication. More recently, on another visit, he seemed more resigned to his failing health. We were able to catch up with the course of our lives since our Grammar School days and our separation in 1958. Both Wesleyan Methodists, after a lifetime of pilgrimage through this barren land, we both had found ourselves in places where Divine Providence had led and we confessed to hearing God's voice and feeling His hand upon our lives in different ways. Ashworth was no longer a regular church-goer, but still believed in that Source of Goodness that "faileth never". He had departed from conventional religiosity but was preparing to meet his maker, relying on a belief in a merciful God and on a life of loving and selfless service to his fellow man.
I am not surprised that one of the hymns he himself chose to be sung at his funeral echoes this affirmation of his faith:
"O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother!
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.
Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of Him whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father's Temple,
Each loving life, a psalm of gratitude."
Thanks, Ashworth, for a life well-lived.
Thanks for a work well-done.
Prayers for a rest well-earned
And Peace at last.
(Delivered by Frank Watty, a life-long friend, at a Memorial Service in St Matthew's United Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada on the 23rd October, 2011.)