(June 5, 1997, Gazette)
Edmund Burke, distinguished statesman and perhaps the greatest orator in British parliamentary history wrote in 1970: "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors."
That's what I believe and that explains why I've spent a good portion of my life looking back at my Newfoundland ancestors. Those sturdy and obstinate West Country pioneers, engaged in various aspects of the salt cod fishery, founded in Newfoundland a community which most of us are proud to call "home."
Sometimes the laws, regulations and conditions were not very favorable to permanent settlement; but they were determined to stay here. That was very evident, for example, when Admiral Sir John Berry, as a young naval captain (from Devon) arrived here in 1675 as commodore of the West Country Newfoundland fishing fleet. He was ordered to deport all those illegal settlers, and give them two choices: (a) go back to England or, (b) to the West Indies. But we turned him down, as Newfoundlanders used to say, "turned him down flat" ("We'll bide where we're to," they said). Just think, we might have been living now on a Caribbean island! Instead, our ancestors clung to the rock, and in a way became trapped by codfish.
So poor Captain Berry, reportedly a compassionate man, did the best he could. He simply took the census. Starting at Bay Bulls and ending in Bonavista, he made a detailed record of every person, place and possession.
After Memorial University College -- in 1949 -- became a degree-conferring institution, researchers at that new university undertook a major project in England. They microfilmed and brought home countless historical documents pertaining to our early history -- documents that had been "lost" in old British colonial files. I was a young university student then, and saw for the first time that new technological device called a microfilm machine, and beheld "through a glass darkly" Berry's census records and a plethora of other data which later were to become primary sources of information for Newfoundland studies. This, for me, was part of a great adventure which started really when I was a boy in a one-room school in Winterton, Trinity Bay, (a school destined "in the fullness of time" to belong to that blessed "class of persons" recorded in heaven as "interdenominational").
I was fortunate in many ways to grow up in a small Newfoundland fishing "place" (the term "village" as used in England was never used in Newfoundland, as far as I know). My family, relatives, neighbors, friends and teachers all stimulated my imagination by their storytelling. Everybody was a storyteller out there. Moreover, the very natural environment was a virtual laboratory conducive to developing in a young boy a powerful curiosity. Therefore it became natural to study tombstones. One old man once observed: "If young Otto Tucker dies it won't be sad to carry him to the graveyard because that's where he spends most of his time anyway."
And when I discovered, at 14 years of age, the headstone of "Robert Oakley who departed this life on Nov. 5th, 1817, age 48 years, a native of Wimbourne, in Dorsetshire," a whole new world appeared before me. It was then, I suppose, I began seriously a lifetime crusade "in search of" what author Cyril Poole calls "the Newfoundland soul."
That search took a significant turn in 1984 when a group of us founded the Wessex Society of Newfoundland to disseminate information about Newfoundland's roots in the West Country of England. The society has, among other things, sponsored approximately 70 public lectures calling attention to our Wessex connection.
The search also took me on nostalgic and research visits to the West Country; and special is that day in 1983 when I met Alan Perry and his wife Jill in their wine shop on the Poole quay. It was the Perry name (not the wine) that drew me inside. I am married to Ruby Perry, a descendent of Captain Charles Perry, an early West Country fishing skipper who finally settled on Exploits Island in Notre Dame Bay. I am honored beyond measure to be associated with Dr. Perry, a respected colleague and dear companion.
Now, my personal greetings to the graduates.
It is a privilege to be with you. Thanks for listening to me; you're a great audience. Many of you are descendants of those early West Country settlers; and in any case no matter where your people came from, there is much in your heritage to be proud of. I just tried today to emphasize that in Newfoundland there are certain cultural and spiritual values passed on by our ancestors worth preserving, and which have given us strength in times of adversity.
I hope your university experience will make you wise and courageous -- that it will help you think clearly and serve to make you calm, even when life is rough and unsettled. I wish you success. I trust you will seek to understand and examine your cultural heritage. Have faith in yourself. Remember you are a graduate of an excellent university, and therefore should be able to take your place anytime with anybody wherever you go.
I thank the president for his kind and thoughtful letter inviting me here. In part that letter read: "Normally the convocation address is approximately 10-minutes' duration." Wise and astute man indeed, in dealing with a long-winded person; and who in his right mind anyway would ever go against a university president? So you see now why I talked in my usual Trinity Bay clip and stuck to my script.
In closing: thanks to my family, colleagues and friends, and to the university for honoring me in this old and beautiful ceremony. I think this ritual reveals the university's approval once again of Newfoundland studies, which are very important in a university dedicated to the memory of Newfoundlanders who died to preserve those sacred social values and a way of life which we often refer to as "the Newfoundland culture."