My father died recently. Despite his ill health I was unprepared. I was forced to contemplate my future while reflecting on the remarkable life of an extraordinary man. I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of my father’s success until I had to plan his funeral. So many awards, so many achievements, so many firsts. His passing brought to an end the era of the self-made post-colonial black businessman.
In response to numerous requests here is the eulogy I gave at his funeral, (with a few amendments).
“I stand before you today faced with perhaps the most difficult task of my life. Robert (Bob) Yorke was a visionary, an icon, a man of the people and for the people who stood tall among Caribbean men. He was my daddy.
As I sat down to write this eulogy I sought help from the experts – the friends and family who knew him best. He was a complicated, complex man. We frequently didn’t see eye to eye but I always appreciated and admired his intellect, his generosity, and his infallible belief in the power of positive thinking. The story I will tell you today is a true rags to riches story. But this is no fairy tale.
Robert Theophilus Yorke was born in Patience Hill, Tobago on May 14th, 1933. He was the second of eight children born to Adam and Jane Yorke. His parents were hardworking, humble people. His father was a fisherman and freelance government surveyor; his mother a homemaker. Bob’s mother kept him close to her, as he was a sickly child, always with a cold on his chest. It is perhaps ironic that a bout of bronchitis would be his final illness.
The family lived off the land. Bob grew up planting sweet potatoes, peas and corn. When he came home from school he would have to grind corn to make coo coo or pick peas to make pea soup. Several times a week, Bob went fishing with his father and brothers.
The Yorkes kept cows, goats, and chickens. The children fetched water from a pipe up the street and the house had no electricity. Bob shared a bedroom with his brothers and the family used pitch oil lamps at night. Although they were poor, they never went hungry; and Bob lived by the credo “big ones help the little ones”. His sisters describe him as a gentle, loving brother who always looked out for them.
It was a close-knit, happy family. Bob pitched marbles with his brothers and spent school holidays with extended family members – Uncles, Aunts, and numerous cousins. Bob revered his older brother Norris – the Sibling In Charge – and emulated him in many aspects of his adult life. He was devastated by Norris’s untimely death in 1987 and rarely spoke of him after.
Bob’s father Adam was the Choirmaster at St Luke’s Anglican Church. The family went to church every Sunday and Granddaddy Adam – or Polly, as we called him – taught all his sons music. This early introduction to music inspired in Bob a love of the musical arts that would stay with him for a lifetime.
My father loved a singsong, and his love of jazz is well known. When I was growing up, he was the box bass player for the Aruac Rd Parang Group. This was a parang side formed by the families on the Valsayn street where we lived. I was a cuatro player, along with a few of the other children and Uncle Leo Martin played the guitar. My mother and the other ladies were the backbone of the choir. Every Christmas Daddy would get the song sheets printed at his office. The whole street looked forward to this annual tradition of paranging each others’ houses.
In later life Bob would indulge his passion for jazz music with annual trips to the St Lucia, Toronto, and Montreal Jazz Festivals before starting his own Jazz On The Beach at Mount Irvine Bay Hotel.
Bob and his friends once followed renowned jazz singer Abbey Lincoln from St. Lucia to Toronto. Like groupies, they gathered backstage where Abbey greeted them and before they knew it, the Master of Ceremonies ushered the singer and the T&T Posse onstage. Security tried to restrain them to no avail. (Hold back a Trini? No way.)
To the surprise of the audience, Abbey dedicated her opening number, for which she received a standing ovation, to the Trini fans who had followed her all the way from St. Lucia. Upon hearing the loud acclaim, the Head of Security looked at Bob and his group in amazement and accepted defeat.
Growing up, Bob was a good cook and regularly cooked for the family. His sister Christine remembers how he would always let her taste what he was cooking. His cooking skills would come in handy in later life when he migrated to England.
His fellow passengers on the voyage from Trinidad to England did not like the fare produced by the galley and complained bitterly about it. After a time the exasperated ship’s crew asked if anyone would like to take over the cooking duties. Bob did not hesitate to volunteer and quickly assumed the role of ship’s cook, earning himself some money on the voyage. So successful was he, and so popular was his cooking, that the Captain offered him a permanent job on the ship. Bob declined, telling the Captain that he had his heart set on becoming a structural engineer.
Bob attended the Patience Hill R.C. School. At around age fifteen, after gaining his school-leaving certificate, he got a job doing masonry with a man called Fred Cruikshank. His sisters would wash his clothes every evening – hand-me-downs from older brother Norris – in preparation for work the next day.
In those days there were few job opportunities for bright young Tobagonians apart from teaching and the Public Service. Bob’s older brother and sister were already training to be teachers but this was not a career that appealed to Bob. He worked with Fred for a while but he always wanted better for himself.
At age sixteen Bob asked his parents if he could move to Trinidad. They agreed and he went to live with his mother’s brother, Thomas Guy, in Mayaro. Bob’s cousin Chrissy, Thomas’s daughter, remembers that even then Bob was doing correspondence courses with a school in England in an effort to further his education. After a while he moved to Curepe to live with other relatives and his cousin Eccles Benoit got him a job at a brick factory in Longdenville. Bob would stay with the Benoits until he migrated to England. I have many vivid memories of visiting Cousin Eccles as a child, and he was always spoken of fondly in our house.
Bob worked at the brick factory for some years. Despite having a good job, Bob was restless. He hungered for more. He had developed an interest in structural engineering and longed to pursue it.
While living in Trinidad he occasionally visited his family in Tobago. It was on one of these trips that he told his parents that he wanted to go to England to study engineering. His parents wanted him to explore other opportunities and gave him their blessing. He was the first member of the family to travel overseas.
Bob arrived in England in 1956 not knowing a soul. He stayed in a youth hostel and soon met a Trinidadian who offered him a place to live. Times were hard for a black man from the colonies in those early days. His brothers in Tobago sent him a portion of their salaries until he found his feet and was able to support himself. Bob never forgot the debt he owed his brothers and until his death he helped them and their families in any way he could when he returned to Trinidad.
Bob wrote home regularly and his mother proudly read his letters to the family. In those days, especially for a Tobagonian, having a son in England was A Big Deal.
Bob enrolled at Greenford High School in London to complete his secondary education and was subsequently accepted at Hammersmith College of Art and Building to pursue a Diploma in Structural Engineering. While studying he had several jobs, including selling TVs and working in a cider factory.
At one point, Bob was a Manager in an electrical goods store. Bear in mind that this was in the early sixties when jobs were difficult to get, especially for coloured people. He had a small black car and being a natural entrepreneur, he decided to do mobile electrical goods sales. He loaded televisions and radios in the front and rear seats of the vehicle, and set off in search of customers.
He soon attracted the attention of a policeman who pulled him over for obstructing the view out of the rear window. When questioned about the items in the car, Bob explained, and suggested to the officer that he could be his first customer – to which the officer agreed. Bob wasted no time in retrieving and preparing a Hire Purchase agreement for the officer. The television was delivered the following day and Bob was not charged.
Bob never forgot his family back in Tobago. As soon as he was established he started sending money back home. His younger brothers and sisters eagerly devoured the big box of candies, cookies, biscuits – whatever he could afford- that Bob would send home every Christmas. Even in those early days his generosity was legendary.
Former flatmate Selwyn Burkette recalls meeting Bob in London:
“I first met Robert Yorke at a friend’s home in London. I had been in England only a week and when Bob learnt I was from Trinidad, he eagerly questioned me on the state of affairs in the country he had left three years ago. We were both studying engineering and our conversation came to an end with the promise that we would see each other again.
Six months later I was looking for a room to rent in Earl’s Court. Whilst speaking to a gentleman on the sidewalk, Bob came up to me and enquired what I was doing in the area. He gestured to his residence, which was only two doors away while relating his intention of moving into a new flat in two weeks, which would have an extra room; “Would I be interested in being a tenant for that room?” I agreed and two weeks later I moved in with Bob at his flat in Baron’s Court.
Bob was not much of a party-goer but occasionally he would have parties at the flat on a Saturday evening. His favourite music was Jazz. He had the complete works of Glenn Miller and on his recommendation I saw the film “The Glenn Miller Story”. Two of his favourite tunes were Little Brown Jug and Pennsylvania 6-5000. He loved those tunes so much he would put the lever on the radiogram in the repeat position so that he could play them over and over.”
I personally can attest to watching The Glenn Miller Story on TV with my parents. It was one of my father’s favourite films. I think I can still play Little Brown Jug on the piano.
Selwyn lived with Bob, and later Greta, for two and a half years. Selwyn remembers Bob as being kind-hearted and God-fearing; and always treating him as a member of the family. After Bob and Greta returned to Trinidad, and Selwyn some time later with his own family, the friendship continued.
It was at a student party in London celebrating a Trinidadian event that mutual friends introduced Bob to a pretty student nurse from Barbados. Greta was living in Bristol at the time and had only come to London for the weekend on the insistence of her friends.
Bob was instantly smitten. Greta was not impressed, and returned to Bristol without another thought about the young man from Tobago. Much to her surprise, Bob turned up in Bristol a few weeks later and soon became a regular visitor. Several months later when Greta moved to London to complete her nursing training, the pair became close and on March 4th 1961, they were married. Bob’s family in Tobago knew nothing of Greta until Uncle Norris told them Bob had met a lady from Barbados and they were going to get married. As he did many times throughout his life, Bob consulted his older brother before making a decision and sought his approval.
I grew up hearing stories of those early days in England and to say my upbringing was very Anglophile in nature would be an understatement. I learned about wine at a very early age. We had dinner together as a family every night and my parents served wine with Sunday lunch. From age 10 I was allowed a sip or two as my father felt it was only right and proper that I be introduced to “the correct way to dine” as he put it.
By 1967 both Bob and Greta had completed their studies and Bob was anxious to return to the Caribbean. This was a time when many countries were gaining independence from Britain and West Indians overseas wanted to explore the promise of newly independent Caribbean nations. The young family – by this time I had joined the mix – set sail for Antigua where Bob had been offered a job with the Antiguan Government. When I was little I used to love looking at photographs of my parents dressed in their finery on the ship and think “How wonderful!”
Bob and Greta spent no more than a year in Antigua then went to live with Bob’s brother Norris in Tobago. Bob left his wife and young daughter with his family in Tobago while he went to look for a job in Trinidad. Fortuitously, he was offered a job with Sanders and Fosters (Caribbean) Ltd.
Bob was enthusiastic and relished the opportunity to put his education to good use. He moved up rapidly through the ranks from Engineer to Technical Director and subsequently assumed full responsibility for the Company’s operations. This served him in good stead when he to started his own company Yorke Structures Ltd. in 1972. The rest as they say, is history. I won’t bore you with the details of Yorke Structures’ history but I will highlight a few achievements:
- Yorke Structures has the largest steel fabricating workshop in the English speaking Caribbean
- The Company builds Industrial, Commercial, Municipal, and Residential buildings
- YSL has won numerous awards for trade and export and prides itself on the excellent quality of its work
- From Belize to Guyana, Yorke Structures has worked in fifteen countries
- Methanol Plants, Ammonia Plants, Atlantic LNG Trains 1,2,3 and 4, Piarco Airport, local and regional schools and hospitals, the Shaw Park Cultural Complex – Yorke Structures built them all
Bob was passionate about regional development. In the past few days I have had calls from people all over the Caribbean wanting to express their gratitude for the work Bob Yorke did in their countries. When Hurricane Ivan devastated Grenada in 2004, Yorke Structures assisted in the rebuilding effort. Yorke Structures built a wonderful Library in Plymouth, Montserrat, which unfortunately was buried under ash with the eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano. One of the saddest days for Bob had to be when he could no longer go to his office because of illness.
As a child my Sunday afternoons were spent driving around the country visiting Yorke Structures’ sites. By age eleven I knew more about steel erection than most graduate engineers. It came as no surprise to my parents when I decided to do a degree in civil engineering.
Many of you know Bob as a successful businessman, hotelier, dapper dresser, jazz aficionado, host extraordinaire, and nation builder. But he was so much more. As his friend Wendell Mottley (former Trinidad and Tobago Government Minister) put it – he was a Tobago patron, a pillar of the Anglican church, pioneering innovator, and confidential advisor to so many – including Ministers of Government.
For many years Bob was the Property Advisor to the Anglican Diocese in Trinidad and Tobago. He visited every single Anglican Church in the country and reported on their state of repair (or disrepair, in some cases).
He was one of the first people involved with the National School Feeding programme and a supporter of the Boy Scout Movement. He donated generously to countless schools and causes, far too many to list. Bob never forgot that those who have, must help those who have not. Several family members owe their tertiary education and their homes to the generosity of Uncle Bob.
And of course, there were Those Parties. Long before all-inclusive fetes there was Bob Yorke’s Christmas party. Unless you were under 15 years old in the early eighties or living under a rock, you knew about Bob Yorke’s legendary parties. My father used to say this was a way of advertising Yorke Structures and thanking customers for their patronage, but I knew this was a thinly veiled excuse to throw a lavish party.
I doubt any one who attended can forget the year Bob Yorke brought Trader Vic’s – the legendary Polynesian Restaurant at the London Hilton – to Trinidad. The guest lists for those parties read like a Who’s Who of Trinidad and Tobago society. In true Trini style some people would try to storm – only to be turned away at the gate.
The downturn in the Trinidad and Tobago economy in the late 1980s reluctantly brought the YSL Christmas parties to an end but the memories live on. Bob’s friend Chanka Seeteram said it best – Bob taught Trinidad how to live. He showed us that we could live a first world life in a developing country. It wasn’t for show. How Bob entertained was how he lived.
Bob was a member of the official delegation under then Prime Minister George Chambers that visited China and the Far East in 1984. It was during that mission that Bob met the Malaysian owners of the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel and secured its purchase. For Bob this was the pinnacle of his triumph over colonial society’s strictures to keep him and his kind in their place.
Many of you may not know this, but my family has had a long history with the Mount Irvine Bay Estate. When Bob was a child, his father went for a job at Mt Irvine Sugar and Coconut Estate, what is now the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel and Golf Club. Granddaddy was turned down and when he argued, he was beaten. Subsequently he was banned from ever entering the estate again. The sting of this incident stayed with young Robert and when the opportunity arose to buy the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel he seized it.
Bob was enormously proud of his grandchildren. One of the happiest days of his life was the birth of his first grandchild, Benn. So delighted was Bob, he gave every employee of Yorke Structures the day off work and closed the Company for a day. When my second son Joseph was born an employee complained to me “Buh we ent get no holiday for this one.”
In later life the onset of Parkinson’s disease would have a marked effect on Bob’s quality of life. Although his mind remained active, his body slowed him down. In the last five years as he became less and less mobile, he frequently did not recognise friends and family members. Eventually he could no longer talk. But every now and then he would say or do something to let us know that his brilliance was still there. Right up to the end he listened to and enjoyed jazz music every day.
Every accolade, every award Bob earned, he deserved. I learned many valuable lessons from my father. How to open a bottle of champagne efficiently, how to pair wine with a meal, how to travel, how to throw a good party. But most importantly I learned the value of education and hard work. I learned that what whatever I do in life, I must do it well. Bob believed in striving for excellence and maintaining an inner belief in oneself.
To quote Wendell Mottley ” Bob’s greatest asset was his strong value system. When you went to Bob and Greta’s house, you knew what they stood for. And the greatest of these values was loyalty. Loyalty in commercial relationships, loyalty to country, and above all, loyalty as a friend. You could count on Uncle Bob.”
He wasn’t a saint. He had his little miserable ways but he was such a charmer, and had such a wicked sense of humour, you couldn’t stay mad at him. Daddy and I would argue and then share a bottle of champagne.
Daddy always said that when he died I would drink his cellar dry. He was absolutely correct. Tonight I will raise a glass to Robert T Yorke; an icon, a pioneer, my daddy. May he rest in peace.”
One of the last lucid conversations my father had was with his grandson Benn, four weeks prior to his death. He said:
“My name is Bob Yorke. I am an engineer and you are my grandson.” It was perhaps a final reminder of the passion which sustained him for so many years – his love for structural engineering – and his indomitable spirit until he drew his last breath.
I will be eternally grateful for the influence he had on my life.