Remembering Max Richards

Fourth President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. University principal. Professor. Chemical engineer. Mas’ lover. Expert maker of rum punch. These all describe the person who was Max Richards. But there are others that matter more – husband, father, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, friend.

And the one that matters to me: uncle.

It’s almost impossible to capture all there is to say about a person who is one of the major influences in my life. Never in any single big way – I would have a hard time pointing to something specific and saying “I am the person I am because of this thing” – but rather, in a thousand small ways that only someone who was there throughout your childhood and adolescence can influence you. I can’t say that he inspired me to get a PhD, but rather, the fact that he had a PhD created a space in which I could see a PhD as something possible.

As far back as my memories take me, as far back as the stories take me, Auntie Jean and Uncle Max are there. One of my earliest memories is of Uncle Max cooking breakfast – eggs, I think. I was four, and it was the summer after we moved to Canada. The family had come to visit – Jean, Max, Mark and Maxine – and rented a house by a lake. My father would drop my mother and two-year-old brother off each morning on his way to work, but my sister and I got to stay with Jean and Max by the lake. It was a great adventure, my first experience being away from my parents (albeit only for the nights). It may have been a week, or it may have been two, but it was my first great adventure. On the first morning, before breakfast, Mark and I went down to the lake to explore, until Jean and Max called us in for breakfast. The idea of going out before breakfast was new and exciting (something that hasn’t entirely faded in 4+ decades), as was being called back in for breakfast and the fact that Max was doing the cooking.

Whether he was calling you in for breakfast as a small child, or offering you food (and drink) when you visited his home, Max has a real way of making you feel welcome. He had real presence, real charisma. He stood out in a way that had little to do with the fact that he was at least half a head taller than everyone around him. But despite that presence, he also had the ability to not stand out. When I was a student at UWI, everyone knew who Max Richards was, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about how he was running the university. But he could walk around campus and be utterly unremarkable – you’d never mistake him for anything other than an academic, of course, but you’d never think he was the man in charge.

It’s easy for his role as President to overshadow what came before, but his role as campus principal was probably the bigger achievement. The end of the oil boom ushered in great uncertainty. The year before I started, the government had cut UWI’s budget substantially and instituted a cess, a tax on students at the university. Faculty and staff were asked to do more with substantially less, with no prospect of raises. Students were asked to pay more for less. Everyone felt great uncertainty, and blame frequently found its way to Max (because we need to assign responsibility to a real person, not some nebulous group we call “admin”). He took the heat for decisions made by many of his subordinates, and he accepted it with little complaint.

Having spent much of my adult life around universities, I have a sense of what a big achievement it must have been to keep UWI afloat in the face of such a massive budget shortfall – and to do it without resorting to layoffs. If I’m right, this was a monumental achievement, and one for which he deserves credit.

(Wikipedia says it was a 30% cut, but since I’m the one who added that information to Wikipedia, without a source, I have to be skeptical. Back in 2005 you wrote what you knew and sources were optional. I trust that I wouldn’t have added that information if I didn’t believe it was true, but I can’t trust what I can’t verify.)

It’s unremarkable to point of that Max was highly intelligent; it’s a basic requirement for the job he held. What’s more notable to me was how sharp his mind was, how he made connections between the key things, easily he saw through things to their essentials. I learned a lot from Uncle Max when to listen and when to speak. (If only I were better at putting that knowledge into practice.)

Uncle Max had a decency, a vibrance. He talked to everyone, paid attention to people, let you know he saw you. He was truly alive, and in so many ways he explored the myriad ways that one could be truly Trinbagonian, in the best ways you could be.

It was a privilege and an honour to know you.

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