Grace McNeil, a prominent member of the local Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a pioneer in development and training in the garment construction sector, the forerunner of T&T’s burgeoning fashion industry, passed away recently.
Following is the eulogy delivered at her funeral service on September 18 by her friend, Sandra McIntyre:
Grace was my friend. Looking through old letters and cards as you do at a time like this, I came across this: “To my dear friend Sandra. With love from your friend Grace. I always pray for you.” We shared the same birth sign, Aries, the name also of her design business. We had a mutual tendency to hoard. I am glad now that I have not discarded her letters and cards. We had a similar sense of humour. Grace had a keen sense of the ridiculous, whether this came from the “great and the good” or from the marginalised.
Gens d’ Arime
I suppose a tribute to Grace must start with Arima, her home. Grace’s home was inherited from her father a professional in the road/ engineering sector, this long before independence.
She came from a line of Creole professionals who helped to build our country even before independence in 1962.
Barataria Senior Comprehensive (BSC)
Grace and I met at BSC a newly established comprehensive school whose aim was to provide young people with choices in academic and technical/vocational areas. This was a revolution.
Mr Arthur Atwell
Mr Arthur Atwell, the principal, was a new type of manager who tried to instil management principles (much in vogue now) among staff and students—with some difficulty! Much later it was clear that he wanted to combine the ethos of the English public school system (to be found in Queen’s Royal College in Port-of-Spain or Queen’s College Georgetown Guyana) with management principles for the benefit of the broad mass of the non-elite students in BSC.
Arthur Atwell recognised the treasure he had in Grace. Debbie one of Grace’s students in garment construction, reminded me today that upon the shift to premises at Barataria, the school held an Open Day to showcase all the students’ work. Drapery, uniforms, soft toys, everything the school needed in this area was provided by Grace. If Grace had lived in Europe (and were a man), she would have been hailed as a Renaissance figure. Grace’s teaching and creative skills were also employed in such institutions as St George’s College, El Dorado Camp which opened—and closed—and opened again according to Grace
Bishops Centenary IDC
Grace was responsible for the training (and consequently the launch of the professional careers of several people in the garment construction sector). When I read 40 years later of new institutions to start a fashion industry in Trinidad and Tobago, I smile. Some Eastern Caribbean countries recognised the gem that Trinidad and Tobago had in Grace and brought her to their countries as a consultant. As I said, Grace and I shared the same sense of the ridiculous.
Grace trained numerous established tailors and seamstresses, the backbone of the fashion industry. Grace always bemoaned the onset of the 1990 coup d’etat which removed Anesa Abu Bakr from the helm of the IDC garment construction programme—and Grace’s opportunities to expand her training initiatives.
Grace liked jazz and was a regular at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club. She was a true renaissance woman. She and Joyce, who is here today, were involved in the West Indian Students’ Association in London frequented at the time by PJ Patterson of Jamaica and Forbes Burnham of Guyana, future leaders of the Caribbean.
My Fair Lady
Grace trained in the world-renowned Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design in London and helped the famous designer Cecil Beaton produce the iconic hats of the West End musical My Fair Lady which featured such stars as Audrey Hepburn. Grace also travelled occasionally to continental Europe as a consequence of her dancing.
In addition to her training and designing work, Grace was intimately involved in Carnival both in London and in Port of Spain as well as Arima. Grace had a great love for Kitchener’s music, his style and the fact of his identification with Arima.
Grace loved Michael Jackson and played his albums incessantly.
Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Grace had a deep love for the church that she joined. She was a stalwart in all senses of the word. She offered freely her skills and expertise and founded the charitable initiative for the benefit of the church. She was very happy to introduce me to the Archbishop saying proudly that “my father was a former envoy to the Ethiopian Crown when Haile Selassie reigned.
Grace facilitated the Arima borough by hosting over several years representatives of the indigenous tribes of our region from Dominica, Suriname and Guyana. Memories I have so many memories of Grace some of which I have shared with you today. Grace has enriched the fabric of my life, literally so because she was my dressmaker. Her voice remains on my answering machine, the sound of her laughter in my head and my heart forever.