|Tribute to the late Lester Woolery, The Renaissance Man|
Updated from Jamaica Observer column of September 2008
By Jean Lowrie-Chin
There are such tired old clichés about our civil servants, that I am always glad to celebrate the excellent individuals who choose to remain in the service because of the passion for their country. Indeed, my late friend Lester Woolery was a renaissance man, weaving scientific terms and Virgil in riveting conversations, creating rate hybrids of roses, and making himself accessible to every friend in need.
A former director of pharmaceutical services in the Ministry of Health, Lester became the man who could source any drug from anywhere in the world. Lester left no stone unturned to find hard-to-get prescriptions for Prime Ministers, Ambassadors and ordinary joes. You see, Lester was as passionate about people as he was about his profession. He earned the respect of friends from the British Universities he attended in the 50’s, and colleague consultants at PAHO, WHO, USAID AND UNDP.
In a tribute to Lester, his former student and colleague, Permanent Secretary for Health, the late Dr. Grace Allen-Young described his thoroughness, approachability and astounding knowledge of pharmacy.
Having worked in the efficient Canadian system with the head of that country’s FDA, Lester believed that there needs to be a reduction in Jamaica’s bureaucracy. The Canadian system assumes that everyone is honest, and if they are found to be otherwise, the full force of the law is brought to bear against them. Lester Woolery believed that the job of the public servant is to assist commerce and to work in tandem with the private sector, not to put obstacles in their way.
After retiring from the civil service in the 90’s, Lester Woolery carefully examined the many offers he had from various companies. The then small company Lasco, appealed to his pioneering spirit and he opened doors for most of the low-cost medications that bear their name. Lester’s approach? He transfixes associates with his humour and brilliance, and his awareness of cultures around the world. He shared much appreciated books on Jamaica’s art and plants with Dr. Lulla, the head of the powerful Cipla pharmaceutical company of India.
As a humble St. James school boy, Lester Woolery won a sought-after parish scholarship for Cornwall College and later copped the “Eighty Pound Scholarship” for vocational training. At Cornwall College, two years after him the winner of a similar scholarship was his lifelong friend, the late Professor Rex Nettleford.
Lester was a popular pharmaceutical agent for GraceKennedy who awarded him an Independence Scholarship to study Pharmacy at the University of London. While there, he gained a further scholarship for the Masters in Pharmacy at the University College Hospital, where he studied at the feet of its famed Head of Pharmacy, Douglas Whittet.
“Those of us who won this type of scholarship had a sense of devotion and gratitude to our country,” reflected Lester. “In the Health Ministry we had a deep sense of concern for the sick, and our decisions were centred on this.”
Lester Woolery’s philosophy of substance over form and goodwill to all, whatever their political persuasion, was one that should inspire all members of government, including those in the new Opposition.
Lester was sought after at any gathering: you could not sit with him at a dinner party and not learn something new. Here are a couple of his gems: If you want to cure the burn of hot pepper, simple rinse with a few drops of hydrogen peroxide in a cup of water. I tried this remedy and it worked almost instantly. In your garden, if a fruit tree refuses to bear, bury a dead animal at its root. Lester says this is an old Chinese practice.
Lester Woolery’s farm, Skyview, near the Blue Mountains, was home to some to some of the most exquisite hybrids of roses and rare birds. He described himself as a flower friend to late prime minister, Michael Manley with whom he shared his special knowledge on horticulture, and whose farm was almost next door. “Michael Manley instructed that only roses from his farm and mine should be used at his funeral,” Lester recalled. “And so it was.”
We marvelled at Lester’s youthfulness and attributed it to his sense of humour and his constant engagement with people and with nature. He certainly kept the “civil” in his service to country, and we looked forward to hearing his tips on call in radio programmes, for which he attracted quite a following. He was also a lecturer at UWI and the Kingston School of Nursing, Lester was a keen family man.
A citation which I was proud to prepare for him read: “The excellence with which he has blazed through life has left a path so bright, and it is no wonder his children have all followed it. A devoted father, it is to his eternal pride that he can view the accomplishments of each of his six children, who have established themselves as competent practitioners in the areas of medicine and business, and promising students in the fields of science and law. He is a caring and witty husband to his lovely wife, Linda.”
Rest in Peace, my friend Lester!