Up close with: Wellesley Howell

| 23/08/2019
CNS Local Life
Wellesley Howell stands next to a photo of himself from his younger days

(CNS Local Life): Wellesley Howell first came to Cayman from Jamaica in 1958, at the invitation of bandleader S. E. Nembhard, who had heard of Mr Howell’s prowess on the saxophone back in Jamaica. What started as a six-month gig turned into a lifetime and then some in Grand Cayman, with Mr Howell making a name for himself both as a musician and a shoemaker, designing and making custom shoes and slippers. In his early days he even made boots for police officers and leather straps for the schools. But he was never far from his sax, though his first musical instrument was a bamboo flute he made himself.

At 104, he is Cayman’s oldest man, and while he may have slowed down a bit over the years, he still comes to his shoe repair shop on Shedden Road every day, plays saxophone when he can, enjoys a weekly game of dominoes with his friends, and is quick to smile and share a laugh.

CNS: Who were your musical influences?

Wellesley Howell: Well, to be frank with you, I wasn’t listening to a special individual. It’s a feeling from God. When I say that to you, I’m telling you the truth. From a little boy going to school, they had a thing we called ‘fife’, a flute. When you have children running around and so on, I don’t do anything like playing with them. I have the flute. And here I am coming from an extension from that, I am here today.

CNS: How did you come to play the saxophone?

WH: Well, I stopped playing the flute, then played the clarinet. I played clarinet for around eight years. I could make money playing it. Then I bought the saxophone; I buy the saxophone on a Tuesday and on the Friday I played at a job. Everybody was surprised. ‘How you just suddenly started playing the saxophone and play so good?’ But I have the feelings that it’s God’s power, God give me a gift of music and I live off that. And I get this (his shop) at the same time, cause meanwhile I played, sometime I go to a shoemaker place and watch. And I bring myself by the two – music and shoes – and it bring me right here.

CNS Local Life
He still goes to work at his shoe shop every day

CNS: Talk about when you first came to Cayman.

WH: At that time, I had a girlfriend (Alma, who would become his wife of more than 50 years). I told her that I got a letter from Cayman Islands to go there and she explained it to her mother and the mother decided, ‘Girl, I tell you, if he decides in his mind to go, allow him to go. I’ll keep you until he returns.’ Well, the both of them take me to the airport, the mother and the daughter. I was glad.

(When I arrived in Cayman) it was a rainy day and the gentleman said to me, ‘You’ll be staying with me at my home.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘But I’m going to drive you through the town and go to my home.’ I said, ‘All right.’

He takes my baggage and he says, ‘We’re going through the town now.’ But when we go through the town, he said to me, ‘You’re at my home.’ I said, ‘But you promised me that you are going to drive me through the town. Are you going to take me through the town?’ And him say, ‘You passed through the town.’

CNS: You blinked and missed it, right?

WH: Sure. I told him that I don’t see any town. At that time, the place here was in a dilapidated condition. I have to say that. But I still come and have my mind settled. But after I play, they see that I am a person who is developed in music. Then a lady who owned a hotel heard me play and said, ‘I’ll give you a job from now on. You’ll be playing for me.’ And people heard that a new man is here from Jamaica and his music is very nice. And I can tell you I spent six months that year that he asked me to be with him, I spent it very nice. It was the first money I got in such a way. Big money.

CNS: Do you remember what you were paid?

WH: At that time, I was paid for myself alone, not the band, for myself alone; it was 35 dollars.

CNS: For a week?

WH: No, no, no, for each performance.

CNS: Wow, that is good money.

WH: Sure, sure. And I never get this in Jamaica.

CNS: But after six months you went back to Jamaica?

WH: Yes, but when the gentleman send back for me the next time, I’m here until now. And I take my wife along with me. I leave here in April (1960) and I marry her June in Jamaica, and then I came back to Cayman a period after.

CNS Local Life
Poster for 100th birthday celebration

CNS: You are 104 years old, an age most people only dream of reaching. What is the secret to you being able to live this long?

WH: The secret of that is how I treat both myself and God treat me. God treat me very good. And I treat myself the way I could manage.

CNS: And how is that?

WH: Eating, drinking, and enjoying myself.

CNS: Do you drink alcohol?

WH: Nothing of any consequence.

CNS: Do you eat healthy foods?

WH: Oh sure, sure.

CNS: What’s your favourite meal?

WH: I can’t tell you because if it is nice, if it’s sweet, I’ll enjoy myself. And by enjoying myself, it develop me.

CNS: Do you cook for yourself?

WH: No, no.

CNS: Have you ever?

WH: Not ever, from after I bring my wife with me, she assists this whole situation. But many days I’m sitting alone and knowing that she die and leave me, I cry over it. It’s  been more than seven years since she died.

CNS: What would you say was your greatest accomplishment over your life?

WH: It’s to marry, to marry a good woman, that assists the situation, she assists building everything and she die after.

CNS: I’m sure that was very difficult.

WH: When I lost that woman, I felt it. And until now I’m feeling it. My thought centres on her and it hurts my heart to know that I lost my wife.

CNS: What would be your advice to young people starting out in life now?

WH: The first part of our accomplishments is pray to God. Pray with sincerity to God and He will assist your life.

CNS: After all these years here, what would you say is the best part of your life today?

WH: Well, you sitting here with me is the best part of my life. (Laughs) Because I can explain what I passed through many years of the past and having a person to give me a treat, a treat by writing my statement, what I passed through.

CNS Local Life
Playing his weekly dominoes game with friends

CNS: What do you do for fun?

WH: Dominoes. I really love dominoes. I’m a good dominoes player. I shouldn’t say that, I should leave that to when you watch me play.

CNS: Does that help to keep your brain sharp?

WH: Sure, man. It keeps my brain both active and sharp.

CNS: Do you win?

WH: Sure. I have a friend, and the two of us play together. He’s my partner.

CNS: Do you play every day?

WH: No, only on Saturdays, from 2 to about 7.

CNS: And when do you play the saxophone?

WH: When I get the feeling, I pick it up and play it.

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Category: Up close

Comments (2)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Love to read about this wonderful man! Thank you for sharing.
    Board games should be taught at schools! Chess for sure! Music also!