The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson

Tribute to Ronald Leon “Ronnie” Johnson

By: Will Johnson

When I reflect on Ronnie’s life and especially his last years of struggle I am reminded of the book: “Journey to Ixtlan” in which the author Carlos Castaneda describes how the passing of life’s great warriors takes place. For indeed, Ronnie was one of life’s great warriors, in that from nothing he built up a small business empire during his lifetime here on Saba. In his last years with only twenty percent of his heart functioning, Ronnie carried on working as usual.

All of our days are numbered, but his was a special case. That did not in any way hinder Ronnie from carrying on working as he always had done.

Ronald "Ronnie" Leon Johnson

Ronald “Ronnie” Leon Johnson

Castaneda writes: “I will have to come with you over and over to this hilltop, “he said. “And then you will have to come by yourself until you’re saturated with it, until the hilltop is oozing you. You will know the time when you are filled with it. This hilltop, as it is now, will then be the place of your last dance.”

“What do you mean by my last dance, Don Juan?”

“This is the site of your last stand, “he said. “You will die here no matter where you are. Every warrior has a place to die. A place of his predilection which is soaked with unforgettable memories, where powerful events left their mark, a place where he has witnessed marvels, where secrets have been revealed to him, a place where he has stored his personal power.”

“A warrior has the obligation to go back to that place of his predilection every time he taps power in order to store it there. He either goes there by means of walking or by means of dreaming.

“And finally, one day when his time on earth is up and he feels the tap of death on his left shoulder, his spirit, which is always ready, flies to the place of his predilection and there the warrior dances to his death.

“Every warrior has a specific form, a specific posture of power, which he develops throughout his life. It is a sort of dance. A movement that he does, under the influence of his personal power. If a dying warrior has limited power, his dance is short, if his power is grandiose, his dance is magnificent. Whether his power is small or magnificent death must stop to witness his last stand on earth. Death cannot overtake the warrior who is recounting the toil of his life for the last time until he has finished his dance.”

“Does death really stop to see a warrior dance?”

“A warrior is only a man. A humble man. He cannot change the designs of his death. But his impeccable spirit, which has stored power after stupendous hardships, can certainly hold his death for a moment, a moment long enough to let him rejoice for the last time in recalling his power. We may say that this is a gesture which death has with those who have an impeccable spirit.”

Ronald Leon Johnson was born on Saba on May 27th, 1937 and died on January 19th, 2014. He and his three sisters, Velma, Patsy and Janice were the children of Richard Austin Johnson and Emmeline  Zagers. Unusual for Saba at the time was that both his father and mother were the only children of their respective parents. Ronnie’s father at one time served as a local counselor in the old advisory council. Because of his knowledge through much reading he was asked to join the old colonial police force.  Back then policemen could in no way show their preference for any political party. Austin was accused of having shouted out with a measure of glee when the party he had voted for, won the election. Even though there was no proof of that, he was transferred to work on the island of St. Eustatius. Austin was a voracious reader and he once told me that he had read every book in the library including the dictionary. On the day he read the last book, he wondered what was to become of him. When he went back to Fort Oranje the Lt. Governor called him and said; “Austin I have good news for you. I just received a telegram from the Governor on Curacao that as of tomorrow you will be transferred back to Saba”. Ronnie went to school there and the cultural experiences from those years left a lifelong impression on him. Also his time spent on Barbados with his parents on a four months vacation in the early nineteen fifties was a subject he often talked about. How they arrived in the night at the beach house they were renting, and when they woke up and saw that lovely white sand and emerald sea, their parents had to get a friend to take them down to Bridgetown to buy bathing suits. They stayed out in the sun all day and got severe sunburn as a result. At the time there were many Saban people living on Barbados and Ronnie used to often talk about the people he had met there. My job was to sleep at their home for the months they were gone to keep his grandmother company in case she should become ill in the night and the doctor would have to be called.

Ronnie fishing. He loved the sea.

Ronnie fishing. He loved the sea.

One of the most dramatic experiences in his early lifetime was the loss on the “Saba Bank” in 1943 (I think) of his grandfather Frederick Zagers. He was out fishing when a storm came up. My grandfather James Horton Simmons and another crew were caught up in the same storm in the boat the “Why Not”, but Rupert Hassell then a young giant rowed for some twelve hours through terrible seas and they got safely back to land. In the boat that was lost was also Freddie Jones (Cutchie’s father), Simon Dunlock (Dinda’s brother), Cleve Hassell and Peter Woods (Edna Woods’ father). Ronnie often talked about the loss of his grandfather. His other grandfather Peter Cohone lived well into his nineties and lived to see Ronnie’s children before he passed away.

After finishing primary school he went to the Boys town “Brakkeput” on Curacao. When Lt. Governor Jonathan Johnson called me for my input into the eulogy, he asked me what I remembered about Ronnie’s years in that institution. Ronnie was older than me so he was in a different building. I know he went to the trade school, but when I did see him he was always telling me and the other boys that he was in love with Lucille. Other than that I could not remember too much about his stay in the boys town.

Ronnie returned to Saba and started applying for a visa to go to the United States. However the more he thought about it the more he wanted to remain here and when he and Lucille decided to get married they discussed the future with his parents and his cousin Eugenius Johnson who became his business partner. He started the Lido Club where the young men of the village of Windwardside, could meet and play pool and card games and dance on Saturday nights. Back then a late night was 10 pm as in the beginning there was no electricity and the village would be fast asleep by that time. He later expanded his business with the Big Rock Supermarket and moved on to his hotel the Cottage Club, apartments for rent and the Stone crusher and so on. He was open to ideas from anyone as well. I remember once standing there by the old Post office when he passed by with a load of galvanize in his truck and I asked him what he planned to do. He said he needed to put a new roof over his building where the Lido was. I said man Ronnie look at it this way. There is little space where you can build. Why not pour a concrete roof and then later on you can build on top. He took my advice and in a few weeks he was busy getting ready to pour a concrete roof. He was a builder at heart and a good investor. Ronnie continued to be enterprising by building and expanding up until his passing. He would work along with the men to ensure the job was done right. Once while fixing the roof of the home where his son Mark lives he slipped and fell off the roof. My son Chris was home on vacation and I asked Ronnie to employ him and show him how the real world works. Chris thought for sure Ronnie had been badly hurt, but Ronnie went home had a glass of brown sugar and water and later was back on the roof working away as if nothing had happened.

Ronnie behind the Bar at the Lido Club talking to Lucille

Ronnie behind the Bar at the Lido Club talking to Lucille

Ronnie loved to go around the sea fishing ever since he was a boy. He also built and bought boats. He and his cousin Howard Johnson even owned one of the boats belonging to the Japanese fishing fleet which they used as a cargo boat. He would love to tell stories about his fishing days. This one he told me more than once. He was out fishing with Benjamin “Gilly” Johnson. Gillie was a midget and like a lot of service when he was fishing. With Gillie it was either you fish or cut bait. However Ronnie wanted to fish and after sitting there in the boat taking orders from Gillie to bring this and to cut bait, Ronnie walked up to the front of the boat, cut the anchor loose and took the boat back to shore. Gillie was fit to be tied but Ronnie could care less. He took off with the boat and went fishing all by himself and enjoyed not having Gillie to boss him around.

For years Ronnie was the biggest employer in the private sector and he was a liberal employer whose employees loved him and called him Papa Ronnie. When he grew up ninety percent of the people of Saba could trace their roots back to hundreds of years unbroken residency here. Nowadays there are some 66 nationalities living here. Ronnie changed with the times and employed people from Palestine, Colombia, the Philippines, Holland, and the United States and so on over the years. He often told me that if it was not for these hard working people who worked along with his Saban employees he would have had to close down his businesses.  Working for Ronnie would have given his employees the idea that Ronnie would have lasted forever and so his death came as a shock to his employees as well as the rest of the community. When word of his sudden death came as he was waiting in his truck to carry his wife Lucille for their traditional Sunday afternoon drive, it was not long before the hospital was filled to capacity with people from all over the island who were shocked with his passing.

From an early age Ronnie loved music and after Carlyle Granger passed away Ronnie moved in and took over the “Occasionals” band and kept it going. This band plays on many social and government occasions and has become such a part of the community that one cannot think of Saba without the “Occasionals” band.

Ronnie on the guitar from an early age.

Ronnie on the guitar from an early age.

Usually before church on Sundays, Ronnie, my brother Guy, Eric, Franklin stand in front of Addy’s supermarket discussing the news. My last conversation with him was a question I had long wanted to ask him. From the time I was an altar boy, I always noticed that his parents and Ronnie and his sisters were always in church and playing an active part, Patsy as the organist, Janice as a decorator and member of the choir along with her sister Velma while Ronnie traditionally picked up the collection. I asked him why his family was so religious. He did not hesitate in his answer. He told me that his great grandfather George Rodney Johnson, Jr. who lived on Hell’s Gate would walk with his six children every Sunday to attend Mass in the Windwardside. At that time there was no church in Hell’s Gate. Ronnie’s Grandmother Annie was one of those six children and passed on the tradition to her daughter Emmeline.  The Sunday of his death Ronnie had been in church as usual, and he was delivered into the hands of the God of his ancestors in the church he had worshiped in all his life with Father Bob Johnson doing the service. The church was filled as well as the streets around the church with many people singing his praises. Ronnie was a charitable man who gave in silence to those who asked for help. He did not advertise his generosity but those who had felt the touch of his benevolent hand were among the crowd singing his praises.

The big question now is:”Who will replace this great man? His legacy must not be lost but rather be built on, not only from within his own family, but also from within the community at large. Ronnie stood for something and many things. What they were we only know now that he has departed the land of the living. Let us not disappoint him.

Ronnie it is only now with your sudden passing that we realize the great achievements you have accomplished in the private sector, only now we realize your contributions to political stability on Saba. Only now we realize what a generous spirit you had and what strong religious convictions you carried on which had been handed down to you through your ancestors by your parents. We have laid to rest a great warrior in life’s struggles for survival and growth. We have taken a father of many to his last resting place.

Ronnie we lament your departure but our grief is lessened in the knowledge that already even before the sun has set on your last resting place you seat of honour has been reserved for you in that great beyond.

We return to Castaneda to reflect on Ronnie’s last struggle; “And thus you will dance to your death here, on this hilltop, at the end of the day. And in your last dance you will tell of your struggle, of the battles you have won and of those you have lost; you will tell of your joys and bewilderments upon encountering personal power. Your dance will tell about the secrets and about the marvels you have stored. And your death will sit here and watch you.

“The dying sun will glow on you without burning, as it has done today. The wind will be soft and mellow and your hilltop will tremble. As you reach the end of your dance, you will look at the sun, for you will never see it again in waking or in dreaming, and then your death will point to the south. To the vastness.’

Ronnie go with god’s guidance to your well deserved rest in the great beyond.  Farewell great friend, farewell great business pioneer, farewell great benefactor, farewell Ronnie from a grateful family, grateful employees and a grateful people.

Ronnie, may you rest softly!!

Ronnie, may you rest softly!!

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