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Armstrong Alexis, Guild President (1994/95) pays tribute to Professor Gerald “Bunny” Lalor

Armstrong Alexis, Guild President (1994/95) pays tribute to Professor Gerald “Bunny” Lalor

Sometimes casual conversations can lead to very profound reflections. On Friday afternoon, 27th August 2021, I had reason to call my long-time friend Peter “Pel” Lansiquot, a renowned St. Lucian diplomat and a comrade I often refer to as a Bolshevik revolutionary. In the course of our conversation, I reminded him of an encounter I had with him, whilst I served as President of the Guild of Undergraduates at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and he had dropped in, all the way from Saint Lucia, to visit his fiancé, who was then reading at Mona for a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration. I refreshed Comrade Pel’s memory of the encounter where he was well decked out in his light brown suit and attempting to access the front gate of the University in order to jump into an awaiting taxi. Whilst this would normally have been a pretty innocuous event, it turned out to be a major undertaking as on that day, under my leadership as President of the Guild, the campus was shut down by the students and under my command, and no one was to enter or leave the campus until the demands of the students had been met by the university’s administration. 

In taking Pel down memory lane, I shared with him the politburo style caucus which unknown to him, had to be convened to secure his passage through the gate, which was fortified by students’ rights advocates, reminiscent of the more contemporary Black Lives Matter protesters. I passingly mentioned that my revolutionary penchant at that stage in my life had put me in direct conflict with the university’s management and in particular the conservative scientist who, at the time, served as the Principal of the Campus. I paused my storytelling to inform my friend that Professor Lalor, had recently passed and in united chorus, we both blurted “may he rest in peace.” Comrade Pel then took a moment to observe the curious coincidence that the Principal of Saint Lucia “A” Level College, during his time (1979-1981), Dr. Nicholas Frederick, had also been a conservative scientist and that he too had had some dusty moments, with presumed radicals like Pel himself, and a handful of others.

Pel was so captivated by my recollection of the events of that fateful day in 1995 that he implored me to write a piece as a means of paying homage to Professor Gerald “Bunny” Lalor. I have to admit, the thought of paying tribute to Prof. did cross the fading crevices of my mind when I heard of his passing, but not knowing what angle I should take, I dismissed the thought with reckless dispatch. My conversation with my friend however caused me to reflect on what seemed to have been a fractious relationship between the Campus’ leadership and the student body of the day. Pel caused me to find the right angle to memorialize the diminutive man but giant leader and academic.

Having migrated from St. Lucia in the last decade of the twentieth century, I was thrust into a semi-socialist environment influenced by movements such as the popular Rastafari movement and underpinned by Caribbean social/revolutionary thought led by academics such as Barry Chevannes, Trevor Monroe, Carl Stone, and Derek Gordon. Younger social thinkers like Orville Taylor, Ian Boxill, Dillon Alleyne, and Michael Witter libated us with brewed activism and expectant boldness which anxiously needed legitimate channels to be put into practice. The many revolutionary and anti-establishment ideas that were more of an academic diet than a tactile discourse found practical application in organizations such as the Guild of Undergraduates. 

When I entered the hallowed walls of the UWI Mona Campus, I was not new to such radical ideas as I was already a student of social revolutionary influences such as the labor movement and the St. Lucia National Youth Council. The University setting only sharpened my resolve to become a dedicated advocate and champion and the guild afforded me a legitimate avenue to promote student rights, become a voice for the marginalized, and a channel through which I could provide passionate representation on behalf of the student body. I therefore became the President of the Guild of Undergraduates, a position which placed me in direct contact with the Principal, Professor Gerald Lalor.

As I reflect on the many encounters I had with Prof. Lalor during the 1994/95 academic year, I cannot help but think that although our opposing roles often resulted in antagonistic exchanges, we both had a passion for a common goal.  I was a youthful student leader with exuberance and buoyed by the sound confidence of a supportive nine-thousand strong membership. Professor Lalor was a consummate administrator etched in conservatism and with a mandate to execute the decisions of the University Council and Campus management team. 

I recall amongst my many encounters with Prof. was in defense of a female medical student who was attacked at an access gate between the Halls of Residence and the University Hospital. The area was badly lit and the Guild had made representation on numerous occasions for attention to be paid to installing lights and possibly security personnel at that gate. Not having acceded to the requests of the Guild, campus authorities were made to feel the wrath of the student body, when they woke up one morning to find the front entrance to the University solidly shut with instructions from the Guild not to allow anyone in or out, whether they were academic or administrative staff, visitors or officials of any stripe.

Therefore, my friend Pel, just by pure chance, was the first to feel the wrath of the belligerent soldiers of the student movement, and later during the day, a confident Prof. Lalor drove up to the gate and requested access. In an uncanny reverse of roles, the students defiantly denied our Campus Principal access and to show his authority, Prof. Lalor once again, and this time with some insistence, reminded the students on duty that he was the Principal and demanded that he be allowed unfettered access to the campus. His request drew the ire of the students but just as we had done on many occasions throughout the day, a caucus of the student leadership deliberated and agreed that access would be granted on condition that the Principal and Head of Security would agree to meet with the guild executive and students at the Mona Campus Assembly Hall. 

Given his quiet confidence and belief that he could take on anything the students threw at him, Prof. Lalor summoned his Head of Security and braved the hostile environment to meet with the students. With firm deliberations and uncompromising confidence, Prof. Lalor sought to defuse the tension and negotiated an unlikely but acceptable outcome. After much consternation, Prof. Lalor was able to quell a near insurrection. His approach was to show empathy, present no objection to the need for enhanced security and articulate a fatherly concern for the safety of every single student on the campus. Knowing that he would do his best to meet the students’ demands, Prof. Lalor negotiated an agreement for action to be taken within a reasonable time, a promise he delivered on albeit with a delayed completion date. 

On another occasion, I had cause to lead a march of over 100 students to the Office of the Principal to demand the opening of the new section of the library which had been built and left closed for over a year. I have to mention that after having changed the landscape of the campus, the new indelible wing of the library was unavailable to students but was the subject of a mock opening when Queen Elizabeth visited Jamaica and toured the Campus. Whilst this occasion became a major point of contention between the conservative Campus administration and the ideologically driven guild which I had the honor to lead, it provided us with a perfect opportunity to press our demands and to reject the hypocritical portrayal of flashing mirrors of a modern library which was not at the time contributing to the education of post-colonial and independent nation-states of the Caribbean in favor of truthfully and meaningfully utilizing the library to fertilize post-independent intellectual discourse. 

During my reign as President, I always believed that student advocacy was a trump-card and on the 17th November 1994, a day commemorated worldwide as International Student’s Day, again with a vociferous and indignant following, I championed the cause of the student body and entered the library in a move of social disobedience. Not having received any satisfactory explanation for the reasons why the library was left closed after a year and with chants of “lead us, lead us, lead us,” I mustered the inner strength and psychological fortitude, to lead the students into the Office of the Campus Principal. 

As we approached the first floor of the Administrative Building, the chants of lead us grew louder and my confidence to stand up to authority grew more defiant. The 100+ increasingly irate protesters reveled in the boldness displayed by their leaders and marching into the Principal’s office was undertaken with superhero-like persistence. Upon rapping on the door of the Campus Principal’s Office, a calm and composed Prof. Lalor emerged with poise, greeted us with a reticent voice, informed us that he was in a meeting whilst at the same time inviting us in to have a seat. Being a true champion of the position that he held, the soft-spoken Prof. Lalor seemed oblivious to the vociferous plenty who obviously could not all fit in his office but seeking to neutralize the demanding group, he created an imaginary platform of equals and sought to listen to our demands. In a series of discussions which followed, we received explanations of the reasons why there were delays but again, in fatherly and protective determination, Prof. saw to it that all remaining works were undertaken and the needed amenities for the new wing were put in place to meet the demands of the students. Within a week of the protest action, the new wing of the library was opened and remains open to this day. 

My tribute to Professor Lalor is therefore one that is laced with immense respect and admiration for a man who, despite the limitations he faced, always tried to deliver to the students. He undertook his functions with poise and deliberate accuracy, reflective of the discipline he had no doubt acquired through his chosen academic field. As students, we might have kept him on his toes and there were times when we thought there was so much acrimony that we would never find solutions. Our demands may have been riveting but Prof’s determination to create the best environment to deliver quality education at the region’s premiere institution would not be compromised. He, therefore, resolved to find solutions even when we were not fully satisfied with the results. 

Nearly three decades later, as I now have the sad opportunity to reflect on my encounter with the man we simply called Prof., I feel a true sense of gratitude that I and the students whom I had the distinct opportunity to lead are better off for the role Bunny Lalor played whilst engaging us as student leaders. On behalf of the Guild of Undergraduates executive of 1994/95, I extend to Professor Gerald Lalor’s family, all his professional and fraternal circles, and in particular the University of the West Indies Mona community, my deepest condolences. His is a contribution that cannot be erased and the impact he had on building a legacy for Mona as an institution of choice will forever be remembered. 

 

Armstrong M. Alexis, President of the Guild of Undergraduates (1994/95) is currently the UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in Namibia.

@Armstrongalexi1

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