IN THE SPOTLIGHT
ASTON WESLEY POWELL – VISIONARY OF JAMAICA
By Ewart Walters
Aston Wesley Powell was a visionary; a giant in Jamaica’s education. Not only did he build the Excelsior Education Complex from a five-student school on his parents’ verandah when he was just 21, but he was also the central moving spirit in bringing teachers together under one organization. And to think that all this started with adversity.
Samuel Uriah Powell, Wesley’s father, was a Mico College graduate teacher and a pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church who had nevertheless gone off to Cuba for a few years to earn a better living for his family. Left more or less to his own devices Wesley was notorious at skulling school, first to play marbles and then cricket, and excelling at both.
As a result, he paid little attention to studying and so when his father returned he found that he had a poor student for a son. That would not do. In his son’s words he then became “a disciple of Solomon in using the rod.” He was to say later “My father educated me but my mother (Anna Louise, nee Mullings) loved me and would console me by quoting the Jamaican proverb about the Jack-Panya (a semi-featherless bird)… ‘Jack-Panya no cry for feddas but for long life’ – (A Wesley Powell, The Excelsior-EXED Story, p6).
The Adventists are a disciplined lot, and applying their noted discipline including a series of floggings, Samuel soon whipped young Wesley into shape. So it was that Wesley, now a top-flight student at Calabar Elementary School on Sutton Street, arrived at the elementary school-leaving age of 15 with no clear future before him.
But his father thought there was a way and took him across the Kingston Race Course from their Campbell Town home to see the Rev Ernest Price, Baptist principal of Calabar High School, then at the corner of Slipe Pen Road and Studley Park Road.
Rev Price welcomed him with high tea and they were launched into a conversation until the teenager suddenly heard Rev Price say, “Oh, your son is much too old for admission to Calabar. Sorry, you should have applied four years earlier.”
It was a deep blow to the young Powell’s aspirations. He was mortified and felt excluded. But he did not wallow long in mortification.
Walking back home with his father, dejected from this rejection, Wesley Powell vowed there and then that his experience would not be repeated if he had anything to do with it. He determined that never again would a child be barred from receiving a secondary education simply because of age. Nor should age, poverty, social class or skin colour be an impediment to securing an education.
He studied at Tutorial College, one of the many private high schools that sprang up in Kingston and took some inspiration from that experience. He was going to start a school. He would create a school that…