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Reginald’s lifetime of service to Bermuda

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Proud moment: Former Progressive Labour Party MP Reginald Burrows with the Hall of Fame Award he received from Wilberforce University. He graduated from the college in 1958 (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Reginald Burrows was all set to be inducted in the Wilberforce University Hall of Fame when disaster struck. Instead of a trip to the awards ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada, he found himself in the hospital suffering from kidney failure.

That was in 2009. This summer he finally collected the plaque from a friend in the United States who had been holding on to it for him.

“I missed all the pomp and circumstance of the awards event,” said Mr Burrows, 81, who has been on dialysis for the past five years.

He graduated from Wilberforce in 1958 with degrees in engineering and maths, but struggled to find a job in racially segregated Bermuda.

“My only real option was to teach,” he said. “I didn’t really want to do that, so I decided to go into the family plumbing business. I never regretted it.”

He maintained his trade over the course of a 44-year political career with the Progressive Labour Party.

“Some people did think it odd that I was a plumber and politician,” he said. “What they thought didn’t bother me.”

Perhaps the two careers were not so dissimilar — he worked hard to remove social and economic blockages during his political career.

“My greatest career accomplishment was helping to make Bermuda a closer society,” he said. “I grew up in a very insulated community in Southampton. Growing up, I didn’t really notice the racism a lot, but I sure noticed it when I was older.

“There were places we couldn’t sit on the train, and theatres and restaurants we couldn’t go in. Things were pretty rough when I started in politics in 1968, especially for the working class and black people.

“I have made a small contribution to my society over the years. I have tried to. We still have a long way to go though.”

In 1959, his friend, Charles Raynor, invited him to join a group trying to form the Southampton Rangers Sports Club.

“I’d always loved football and cricket, although I was probably a better cricket player,” he said. “At that time we didn’t have a facility or a field. We conducted meetings in Raynors’ Hall.”

Over the course of five years the group purchased land, developed the field and built a club house.

“We bought the land from the Cooper family,” he said. “When you first saw the land you never would have thought it would make a field. We had to get bulldozers in and level it out and build a retaining wall.”

When it was finished he felt immensely proud of himself and the other men involved.

“I felt like if we could do that, we could do anything,” he said.

John Evans, the husband of the late PLP leader Dame Lois Browne-Evans, became a member once the club opened.

“He said I should enter politics,” Mr Burrows said. “I said that had never crossed my mind, but I’d think about it.”

He was also approached by the fledgling United Bermuda Party.

“I chose the PLP because I thought they needed my help more,” he said. “A lot of people were opposed to the PLP at the time. They called us communists and socialists, but it didn’t bother me.”

People who opposed the ruling class were sometimes punished by having their mortgages revoked, Mr Burrows said. He recalled trying to borrow $2,500 from the bank.

“I wanted a bit of money to finish off my house,” he said. “The bank said I had to have everything plastered and the shutters on before they would lend me the money. I said never mind. It took me a little longer to finish. I did extra jobs such as taxi-driving to pay for it. One good thing was, they couldn’t call in my mortgage, since I didn’t have one.”

He retired from politics in 2011. His contributions to Bermuda have been recognised by the PLP and the Bermuda Health Foundation.

Mr Burrows grew up in the same area in which he now lives, across from Heron Bay Primary School.

“At the time there were just two or three houses on the hill,” he said. “The Heron Bay School was called Brown’s School. There were 90 students crammed into three rooms.

“The headmistress was Winifred Brown. She was quite an athlete in her day. She was the sister to Neville Tatem, which TN Tatem is named for.

“The three teachers were all from the Sandys area and would bicycle to school, rain, blow or shine. Their dedication really inspired me.”

He was the second pupil from Brown’s School ever to attend the Berkeley Institute. After Berkeley he worked for a few years, and then entered Wilberforce University. He credited his great-grandfather, Profirio Gomez, for teaching him the value of hard work. Mr Gomez was the first person in Bermuda to be baptised as a Seventh-day Adventist, back in the early 1900s.

“He came here on a banana boat from Cape Verde,” Mr Burrows said.

“He spoke Portuguese. He started out in St George’s, but later farmed on what is now Catchment Hill in Tucker’s Town. In the 1920s he had to move, like a lot of people.

“I never heard him complain about it. He was well compensated and that was how he was able to move to Southampton.

“At that time there were no lights where he was living in Tucker’s Town, no paved roads and few houses around. It was very isolated. He got the better end of the deal.”

Mr Gomez died when Mr Burrows was about 8.

“I never asked him why he became a Seventh-day Adventist,” he said. “I never thought of it.”

Mr Burrows’s father, Reginald, did not carry on Mr Gomez’s religion. He helped to found the Vernon Temple AME Church, which today sits next door to Mr Burrows’s house.

When asked what had kept him going all these years, he said: “I didn’t drink much. I haven’t drunk at all in the last 30 years. I’ve never smoked. I’ve tried to lead a good life.”

One of the highlights of his life was getting to meet then US president Jimmy Carter several years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC.

“I have been several times,” he said. “A dozen of us were selected to go and meet the president in a private room. I got to shake his hand.

“He asked about Bermuda. He said he had been here on a submarine in the Navy.”

Mr Burrows now leads a quiet life.

“Because of dialysis I am not able to do a lot of the things I could do before,” he said. “Once a month, I meet with some old friends, such as Stanley Lowe. We get together and solve the world’s problems. Sometimes we visit old friends like Quinton Edness.”

Compared with his ancestors, the octogenarian is a spring chicken. His mother, Esme, was believed to be Bermuda’s oldest resident when she died at 105. His father lived into his nineties. Mr Burrows is married to Sheila, and has four children, Christopher Burrows, Zakiyyah Taalib Bey, Tracey Moore and Trina Burch. He also has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

• The Royal Gazette highlights outstanding seniors every Tuesday in the Lifestyle section. If you would like to suggest a senior citizen contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com

Fond memories: Reginald Burrows, standing in the centre, in the late 1980s with five generations of his family. From left, Mr Burrows’s great-aunt Myrtle Tulloch, his mother Esme Burrows, his son Christopher Burrows, his father Reginald Burrows and his grandson, Hakeem Taalib Bey (Photograph supplied)
Former Progressive Labour Party MP and Senator Reginald Burrows with US President Jimmy Carter at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC (Photograph supplied)