The Senator from St. Eustatius
The Senator from St. Eustatius
by Will Johnson
Albert Kenneth van Putten was born on the ‘island of St. Eustatius on January 29th, 1937 and died on September 4th, 2014. He went to the elementary school there and then went to Curacao for his secondary education. He was always very close to his mother “Maatchie”, his sisters Louise and Margret and his brother Noel. He would always be telling me stories of his father who had become blind in his old age but who had worked for a number of years in New York.
I learned to know Kenneth on Curacao around 1955 or so when I started going to school at the Msgr. Zwijzen College. Kenneth lived with his aunt in Schaarloo where all the wealthy Jewish merchants lived. His aunt worked for one of those families and he told me many stories about life as it was in the nineteen fifties living with those families in Schaarloo. In later years I came to know many of those old Jewish families who no longer lived there but had moved elsewhere.
I met him again when I was working on St. Maarten in the Receivers Office and he worked for the Cable office. He later moved to his native island and was Commissioner in the nineteen sixties for a period of time. After this he went to Jamaica to the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies to study theology. It was his intention to become a Methodist Minister. For some time he moved through the islands of Trinidad, Barbados, and many more. We often spoke about those years. We agreed that Kenneth was definitely not cut out to be a Minister although he was an organist in the church for a number of years. He said that he realized the value of his Dutch passport when he lived in Jamaica. Since there were so few Dutch citizens living there he was on the Ambassadors invitation list for receptions. The embassy car would come to Mona Campus to fetch him and take him up to Beverly Hills to the lovely home of the ambassador with the city of Kingston spread out below. Years later I had the privilege to attend a reception at that location as well and could understand why Kenneth enjoyed so much having his Dutch passport and being invited there.
Kenneth loved a good joke and would often tell me about his adventures when trying to spread the word among the islands when he was hoping to become the future Methodist Minister on his native island. I remember one which he told me about a lady coming to him for advice. She came to complain her husband and told him that when she first got married and her foot happened to touch her husband’s under the table he would say: “Darling is that your footsie footsie?” But after twenty years of marriage when she happened to touch his leg with her foot he would shout at her; “Woman get your so and so foot off my leg;” and so on. We also traded many stories about people we used to know on St. Maarten. People like Frederick Froston, Ruth Ann from Middle Region, Mother-in-Trouble and a host of other interesting people whom we had known there. Kenneth knew so many people that it sometimes seemed to me that he knew every single person in the Eastern Caribbean and beyond. Friends of his going all the way down to Trinidad became my friends as well. He was a good imitator of the various West Indian accents. He told me once that a friend of his named Blackwater was up at the grocery story of a mutual friend of ours Daphne and shouting out about some problem he was having with a young man from St. Kitts. Kenneth called Daphne and in a heavy Kittitian accent told her that he wanted to talk to Blackwater. Kenneth then proceeded to tell Blackwater that he was coming down on the next flight and the next thing he planned to do after he stepped off the plane was to bust Blackwaters mouth and send him to the dentist for a set of false teeth. Before Blackwater could answer Kenneth hung up the telephone and listened to Blackwater bawling out from the distance and coming down in his direction as to what he planned to do with that Kittitian. Anyway Kenneth listened to his story (as if he did not already know) and advised Blackwater that the boy sounded serious and that he better go and lodge a complaint with the police. Advice which was taken and as Blackwater went in the direction of the police station Kenneth could hear him shouting out and telling everyone he passed about that fresh Kittitian boy who had called to threaten him.
His home was open to all. Senator Millicent de Weever told me that she once was trying to get him on the phone. She let it ring for a while. Then someone came on the phone out of breath. She asked him where was Kenneth. He said:”I don’t know but I was passing in the street and heard the phone ringing and came in to answer it.” Another time my wife Lynne our two boys at the time Teddy and Chris and I were invited to his home for a bar-b-que. A friend of his Carlyle Maillard was manning the bar-b-que pit and other friends were helping out. When we sat down a friend of his Movida came into the house as if she was in a hurry took a couple of chicken legs off the table and went out the door shouting to him:” You think that you going to feed your white people and leave we poor black people here to starve?” Knowing that it was a joke we had a good laugh. However the children were small and they remembered it differently. They thought it was for real until I told them that she was a good friend of Kenneth’s and mine and was just pulling a joke on him.
The other memory I would like to recall is his aunt’s coffin. The old timers would have their wooden coffin built and stored under the bed ahead of time. And so his aunt from whom he inherited his house had her coffin built. Many are the times when someone would come to the door in the middle of the night and shout out “Mister Wan Putten, I want to borrow your aunt’s coffin.” Someone had died and a coffin was needed in a hurry and so after the person was buried they would have another coffin built for his aunt and return it to be stored under her bed. Before the good lady died her coffin had been buried several times before her. He told me many stories about his father. When his father thought that Kenneth was drinking a little too much he told him:” Kenneth I am not going to tell you to stop as that will not work. All I am asking you to do is to slow down.” Kenneth’s father worked for a Jewish tailor on Fifth Avenue in New York and would make deliveries to some of the wealthy families on that famous avenue and could tell stories about how they lived. One of his observations was that the Germans did not give their children toys to play with but blocks to build with and that is why the Germans were so smart.
After he became a Member of the Windward Islands Council we met quite often as I was in the council as well. He was in the opposition and my party the WIPM was in government on Statia as well as Saba. We really became friends because of the following incident. There was a meeting on Curacao to which the islands had been invited. Each delegation had a rental car assigned to them. I saw Kenneth on the sidewalk by the airport looking for a taxi. I stopped and asked him if he needed a lift to town as we were all staying in the same hotel. He took the lift with us. The next day in the meeting he thanked us and told us that his own delegation had refused to take him in the car assigned to them and thanks to Saba he had made it to the meeting.
He and I became Senators in January of 1986 and were in coalition first with Prime Minister Don Martina and then later with Prime Minister Maria Liberia-Peters. We went through some turbulent times together. Senator Millicent de Weever from St. Maarten used to travel with us for eight years. We always rented one car and lived together like family. Millicent would always say that if the three islands could live together like us then there would be no problems between our people. And the jokes we all had together. Kenneth always had a host of his Statia people and especially his colleagues from the Democrat Party in tow with him. We used to like to go to the Golden Star restaurant which specialized in Creole dishes. Also Kenneth and I frequently visited Minister Stanley “Brother” Rogers and his daughters and there again it was nothing but good jokes. In a eulogy for an old friend on Statia he told the story about her trip to Curacao with him and me. He took us upstairs in the airport restaurant and treated her with lobster and so on. Nothing but the best for his friend. On Curacao we first passed by a friend to drop off some boxes. The moment he left the old lady turned to me and said: “Lord Mr Johnson, we need a change on Statia. He ain’t doing a thing for we.” When he returned and we dropped her off in the Oranjestraat, nothing but hugs and kisses and thank you’s. After he drove along for a while he asked me: “What did she have to say when I left the car?” When I told him he laughed his head off. He said: “I thought so. She is not for me but she is a good friend of my mother so I have to treat her well.” And treat everyone well he did. He was known throughout the island for his generosity.
I have besides the good memories many souvenirs in my house to remember him by. The chair I am sitting in while typing these memories of our friendship was given to me by him. It is one of the baptismal chairs from the former Jewish Synagogue on Statia. He had it from the house which he inherited from his aunt who in turn had inherited it from Mr Arthur Valk (Hodge) a teacher and intellectual who never married or had any children but who in his last years was taken care of by Kenneth’s aunt. Also several other pieces of furniture which are several hundred years old and which I had restored here on Saba. Even some love letters from Minister Rufus Plantz in his excellent handwriting trying to lure back one of Kenneth’s aunts who had flown to New York to get away from his amorous advances.
There are also so many memories of our travels together and those which I missed out on. July was a month I did not like to travel as I wanted to spend as much time as I could with my children. One February though when I had a tough election campaign we were invited to a meeting in Spain and were scheduled to meet and greet the King. I decided not to go as it was the week before the election and I wanted to be close to every voter. Kenneth went and met the King and really enjoyed seeing Seville. He came back and won the election whereas I lost that one. Another time there was a meeting in Brazil and all of the heads of state would be there including Fidel. In the end I chose for staying with my children. Kenneth went and shook hands with Fidel. Years later I had the same privilege on Cuba.
We travelled to nearly all the Latin American countries together to attend meetings. Later on as a Member of the ODCA I was able to visit those which I had not visited before, and then in 2010 I was elected back to the last Parliament of the Netherlands Antilles and was able to cover a few more countries. We shared many memories of famous Antillean politicians which we worked with in parliament and as coalition members in various governments. Kenneth never forgot a name and many times I would have to call on him for a name of one of our former teachers or something or the other that I needed to know about any of the many politicians we had relations with in the past.
Since his retirement I would call him or he would call me at least once a month. I am also close to his sister Louise and had served with her in the Post office on St. Eustatius in 1961 for some weeks and she was my boss. We have remained friends throughout. When I told him that my wife Lynne and I were expecting another baby at the same time I told him that if it was a boy I would throw his name in between the others. And so I named him Peter Charles Albert. Several times Peter asked me to explain him about the name. When people would call him Peter Charles he would always tell them; “Don’t forget the Albert.” Saddened as I am with the loss of a good and generous friend I am consoled by the fact that in my son Peter who is now an engineer I will always remember my dear friend and Brother Senator Albert Kenneth van Putten. May he rest softly in the Dutch reformed cemetery next to his home on the Kerkstraat! Farewell Kenneth!