By when he passed on last week, the life and times of Owen Baptiste had earned recognition by us survivors as a signature era in Trinidad and Tobago, with him in a starring role. His own path had extended past newspaper journalism to include signposts marking him as an editor in demand in T&T and elsewhere, and a publisher and author of books.
His resume eventually encompassed an incomparable stint as a Trinidadian teaching English in China for 12 years. Meanwhile, the news and the commentaries had flowed past readers and audiences that had always assumed him to be holding out somewhere in the background. Maybe few one-time associates checked his time down here as long as 87 years.
My own recall last placed an encounter with him at the funeral of Raoul Pantin. On a sideboard at my home stands a framed photo of Owen and Rhona Baptiste in conversation with me in the forecourt of the RC Cathedral, after the 2010 Keith Smith funeral service.
The man had outlived a lengthy line of colleagues, associates, and hands he had hired over his times as a maker and shaper of media entities and, also, of careers. It was Keith Smith, a friend from our Laventille hometown, through Nelson Street Boys’ and Fatima College, who had brought me in touch with Mr Baptiste.
“Call him,” Keith urged way back then. “Tell him you heard from me that Anthony Habib has left. And suggest he consider your application to fill that vacancy.” Keith, a hotshot number inside the new Express, likely lobbied in my favour.
The interview was short. Yes, I could have the job, the editor said. He warned that if I didn’t show promise within a few weeks, he “would have no compunction” about letting me go. The opening was for a sub-editor on the Night Desk, not for a seeker after a writing position for which I had applied.
Copy editing, headline writing, page design, all on deadline short order, were arcane back-room skills I was at once challenged to gain, even master. The Night Desk operation, starting at 2 p.m., was an introduction to working late-night, without overtime expectation.
My dream, however, persisted to become a bylined writer. On my own time, I pursued that mission and my stories gained feature publication in Express pages.
OB, as we then called him, effectively did me a favour, shaping a career progression distantly patterned after his own. Before too long, I was off the Night Desk, having imbibed its developmental approaches. My advance posting entailed joint-byline exposure with Keith Smith as we researched and delivered a series called “Express Survey”. At that time, “investigative” was still an uncommon characterisation for such reporting then aimed at “in-depth” validation.
My own was just one career set on a developmental path by OB. The 1970s decade opened upon the historic convulsions distantly resembling those now connected with Black Lives Matter. An upsurge of sentiment and action, then called “Black Power”, marked the spirit of the age.
Under OB’s leadership, the Express was projected as the exciting new kid on the block. The Owen Baptiste-led and designed paper delivered the unforgettable 1970 banner headline, “BLACK POWER STUNS THE CITY”, delivering reportage on the first of increasingly massive demonstrations. The tabloid daily reflected capture of the spirit of the times, and also the seizure of an opportunity to project itself as the paper of the moment.
At the helm of this start-up that many people didn’t imagine had any more than short life expectancy, the editor retained enough self-possession, self-confidence, and balance to goad, rein in and cool down staff as he judged necessary. Covering a 1970 demonstration-turned-riot, reporters Lydia Sam and Lennox Grant, suffering effects of police tear gas and baton blows, staggered back to the office and wrote what we felt, and in such terms our copy was published.
On the following morning, neither salute nor sympathy marked the official Express reception. On the noticeboard was posted a clipping of John Babb’s Guardian coverage of the event. A caption, hand-written by the editor, read: “This, brothers and sisters, was how yesterday’s event should have been covered.” From the Babb reportage, hailed as exemplary by the Express editor, I remember the sentence: “Something sounding like a gunshot was heard.”
From the sidewalk outside the Express building, the editor had been observing the near-traumatised condition of tear gas-stifled reporter Lydia Sam as we returned to the office. As I supported her, my own forearm ached from one smash hit of a police baton.
The editor was moved, however, to convey a lesson. Personal feelings, as extreme as hurts incurred in covering a riot, should not influence the content of news reporting.
Over the back-and-forth later years, OB hired me twice, and fired me once. The kick-out was in response to a memo from me that had criticised his management style as unduly marked by “harping, carping and hectoring”. I had gone too far.