Celebration of the Life of Hilda Valerie Noreen John
Today, we celebrate a life fully lived. Noreen was born in Kanga, Curacao, on the 21st April 1953. Her parents, Hewlett John (Pa Ulette) and Agatha Baron (Auntie Gath), were united in marriage in 1947. They migrated to Curacao. During the first quarter of 1956, they returned to Dominica with three children, Helline, Lawrence and Noreen. The family was extended in Dominica to include George (Son Son), John Baptiste (Holday), Stephanie (Mawo), Ezra and Hilda. Prior to the union, PaUlett, fathered three children, Jerome (Mannie), Sonny and Suzanne.
All lives are shaped by environment, events and people. Noreen's was shaped by the fire of 1956 which destroyed their family business, and by the positive influence of Pa ULette and Auntie Gath.
Auntie Gath, the matriarch; long suffering, emollient, ever loving, diplomat, non-judgmental parent, had a profound influence on the life of Noreen, while Pa Ulette, the disciplinarian, courageous, hardworking and single-minded, no nonsense father, provided the ballast needed in challenging times. This pro- vided her with the balance she always exhibited.
Noreen attended the Grand Bay Government School from 1957, where she excelled and transitioned to the Convent High School in 1965. Noreen and her close friend Jacqui Leatham Collington were the first women in Grand Bay to pursue A-level studies. They maneuvered the difficult A-level years of 1972 and 1973, and those studies equipped Noreen to face the world of tertiary education. Prior to going to University she taught for two years (1973-75), at the St. Mary's Academy. True to form, Noreen was not only interested in going to University; she was interested in going to some of the best. She received a BA and MA in Economics at Columbia University in New York.
She returned to Dominica in 1981, to the world of work. Due to her progressive views and activism, she was unable to get employment from the then Government. In those days, Dominica had a very vibrant Non-Government Organization (NGO) sector and Noreen found employment with the Small Projects Assistance Team (SPAT), where she headed the women's section under the leader ship of director, Joey Peltier. The photo of her going away party in 1988, speaks volumes of how positively her colleagues at SPAT felt about her.
Noreen was a believer in life time learning and soon thereafter headed for the London School of Economics, where, she completed in 1990, a Master of Science in Social Policy & Planning in Developing Countries. She soon found employment with the Commonwealth Secretariat, where she worked for the best part of eighteen years.
On December 6, 1997, a marital union was formed between Noreen and Olujide Obonyo (Ulric Delsol) of Scott's Head. While the union did not produce any children, Noreen and Olu, on returning to Dominica in 2010, provided the guardianship for Meralda John, the grandniece of Noreen. Her compassion and love played a major role in shaping the young child's future to successfully transition her from childhood to adulthood.
Noreen loved her siblings and they responded in like measure. One of Noreen's enduring traits was a fierce loyalty towards siblings and friends. They could do no wrong in her eyes. The filial love of her siblings was reflected in so many ways; the exchange of gifts over so many years; the daily phone calls, often just chit-chatting, 'I cooked rice, peas and chicken for lunch'.
Noreen was a surrogate Mum to all her nieces and nephews. She would encourage them to give of their best and was always present at every special occasion.
During her recent illness, it was not unusual for a brother to leave Grand Bay, eight miles away and arrive at Scott's Head, in time to cook a favored breakfast by 07.30; or the sister dropping all in the USA and heading to Dominica to take care of Sis.
Her mantra was that love is the natural order of things, yet she saw so many around us defying this law. What made the nuclear John family so close? The family has weathered many adversities, however, the fire of 1956, left an indelible mark on the memory. The Johns always sought support and comfort within the family. This became both strength and a weakness.
Noreen was very creative. Few knew she was a cook par excellence. In the UK, Noreen and her husband, Olu, once invited a renowned Dominican cook to supper. At the end of the meal their guest commented that Noreen had far surpassed her as a chef. To quote the guest, 'I am not in your league'! Noreen was a strategic thinker and while in the Commonwealth Secretariat she was contemplating the future. She was single minded, determined, but open. When a friend told her 'you will never pass the bar exam.' this was grease to the mill. At the Secretariat, Noreen quietly pursued her law studies and surprised all her colleagues on announcing in 1996, that she had obtained the Bachelor of Laws Degree from London University. She was not finished yet. She was called to the Bar of the UK in 2002 and of Dominica in 2009. Noreen returned to Dominica, with her husband, in 2010, to take up a position of Director of Legal Aid. This position, she held for four years. Thereafter, she went into private law practice.
Noreen was a 'roots' person with the common touch who was capable of talking to royalty, yet walk with the common man and woman. She was a very helpful person. Whilst in the Secretariat, she was the facilitator of many a consultancy for Caribbean consultants.
Noreen was multidimensional. She had the world of her family; that of her friends; her work; her organizational world and kept them separate.
Noreen John, ever beautiful, intelligent, high achiever, a passionate believer in women's rights, a defender of the down trodden and the poor, a consummate diplomat, a lover of children, and a believer in the pursuit of education for upward mobility, petite, was a tour de force.
Let us listen to Noreen, advising a younger woman in 1990:
'I really think you should be thinking seriously about getting some kind of training now. We all need money, and working is important, but wasting all your youth is not going to be good for the future. Now is your youth, you cannot throw it away, and stifle yourself in one corner. The world is wide, and there is a lot to learn. Furthermore, one cannot be too dependent on men totally. It is important that you establish yourself independently, only then can they respect you. If you don't have what is yours to fall back on, sometimes it can be very hard for women in particular.'
Noreen was blessed! She was loving and forgiving and was loved by many. She was a role model to many women. Her friend, Ursula Johnson-Green wrote,
'Noreen was a beautiful star and I know she is resting peacefully! She will always be remembered with great love, utmost admiration and deep regard by all who had the privilege of knowing her'.
Good often comes out of challenging situations. We shall establish the Noreen John Foundation to continue her work in Lifelong learning.
The defense of women's rights
The championing of youth interests
Working with the poor and downtrodden.
She is gone but not forgotten. May her soul rest in peace.