Remembering A.C. Wathey: The story behind the statue

POSTED: 07/27/14 10:56 PM

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – Every July 24 some people take the time to remember one of St. Maarten’s perhaps most famous (or infamous depending on whom you ask) sons, placing memorial wreaths at the base of a statue dedicated to the life of Albert Claudius Wathey. And like everything in this world, there is a story behind it.

It was the fall of 1999, and I was living in Toronto, Canada, at the time, in my sophomore year at the University of Toronto. My grandfather, or the “Ole Man,” had passed away the year before, and the then government of St. Maarten had rejected the offer to hang a portrait of him in the legislative hall of the Government Administration Building. How ironic since the hall bears his name. Some felt that this was an injustice to the man and his life. Something, I thought, had to be done.

I had always been fascinated with political capitals of the world and having seen a few of them, I knew that statues of iconic and historically important individuals usually adorn their public spaces. These monuments stand as symbols of a nation’s culture, society, and politics, and are a part of its living mythos. They are meant to inspire a new generation in whichever field and to make sure they remember where they came from and how they got here. They tell a people’s story. Why should St. Maarten not have its own?

I wanted to get a glimpse of the Canadian capital city of Ottawa and its beautiful parliament building perched on a limestone cliff overlooking the confluence of the Ottawa and Gatineau rivers. Capital cities are filled with symbolism. Ottawa is on the border of French and English Canada, symbolizing Anglo-Francophone unity. Washington, DC, stands in the middle, uniting the American North and South, for example. So I drove up to Ottawa for a weekend and took a tour.

While wandering around the grounds of Parliament Hill, I came across one statue in particular that struck me. It was apart from the others and set in natural stone. It was a statue of a brave Arthurian knight, Sir Galahad, and was a gift from Prime Minister Mackenzie King to honor his brave friend. I loved the symbolism of the raw, native stone. I thought that would make for a fitting way to honor a local son of the soil.

But how to get it done? Who would be the artist? Where would the funds come from? The family supported the idea, of course, but remained skeptical of whether a statue would be welcomed given the recent rejection of a simple portrait, let alone tons of metal and stone eternally set in place.

But we were in luck. On my Italian side a cousin of mine is married to the daughter of a well known sculptor who had recently been commissioned by the Vatican to do work, Antonino Cassata. My parents and I travelled to Italy right away and arranged a meeting on the outskirts of Rome. He asked for every available photo of differing angles of the Ole Man, and of video if possible. He poured over the materials and asked meticulous questions about his personality. We even carried a Guayabera shirt to Italy to get the look right, and told him that the Ole Man was a man of the sea and loved sailing.

Cassata noticed that from photos and video my grandfather was in fact soft-spoken and purposeful in his public speaking, and that he usually had something in his hand, like a piece of paper with hastily scribbled notes to aid him, if needed.

Cassata then sculpted a plaster mold and explained that he would put in the Ole man’s hands a piece of paper, as if he’s holding a plan of some sorts, and on it would be inscribed the national motto. The material chosen would be that of a special maritime bronze that would develop a unique greenish patina over time as it aged; the same effect as on antique sailboats. Unfortunately, someone decided, out of love naturally, to paint the statue over with a new coating for fear it was corroding! But the bronze is supposed to naturally age like that.

The funding was thankfully provided by a combination of community donations and family funds. With that out of the way, the bronze was set to be cast, and now the task came of finding a location for the Ole Man and on what he would stand on in his eternal vigil.

Returning to St. Maarten, things had changed, by 2000 there was a different government in place and St. Maarten had opted for a new political destiny in the referendum. Then Commissioners Sarah Wescot-Williams and Theo Heyliger proved willing to listen and eager to help. A location was agreed upon.

By that time, sufficient buzz had been generated as the statue was the first of its kind on St. Maarten. We now needed logistical help in choosing the stone and moving the 800 pound sculpture into place, not to mention the gargantuan stone that would have to be carefully laid down before.

Then Windward Roads NV Managing Director Jan Aben was approached and he generously offered the company’s services free of charge, even providing a young and cheerful engineer, Rimmer, to accompany me in this little adventure. With the engineering expertise and heavy equipment acquired, all that was needed was the stone!

The only real quarry on the island was on the French side on the Petit property in Hope Estate. With the help of Mrs. Tessy de Weever, wife of Member of Parliament Leroy de Weever, I was introduced to her uncle, the late Dr. Hubert Petit, former mayor of the French Side and an old friend of the Ole Man. When he heard what was planned, he was ecstatic, and graciously offered the selection of any material on his family’s quarry.

So Rimmer and I set off on a bouncy road trip up Hope Hill in search of the perfect stone. We searched for quite some time, but none seemed right. Until we got to almost the very top of Hope Hill, which is quite a fitting name for the hill that would provide the symbolic stone. Then I saw it. It was a huge stone from near the very top shaped almost like a pyramid that needed no work at all. It was flat on the top and bottom.

The stone was extremely heavy, and twice broke the chains holding it when it was to be put in place, leaving a few small craters in the road. But it survived its fall and was put in place. Early in the morning of July 24, 2000, the statue was placed atop the stone, and Rimmer sealed it permanently.

We popped some champagne after to celebrate all our work. And the strangest thing happened. The Ole Man had always been a lover of animals, especially dogs, and when the statue was finally laid on its stone, a group of street dogs wandered over the parking lot and laid down at the base of his statue for about a half an hour in the pre-dawn morning and then simply walked away again. This is not made up. We were all speechless. It was the strangest sight.

Our good friend Yolanda Caron, who is no longer with us, made by hand the special cover that went over the statue in order to keep it hidden until ready to be unveiled later that day in the ceremony.

Later on that day, on the Ole Man’s 74th birthday in 2000, two years after he died, his statue was unveiled in front of the building where he dedicated his life to public service, and in the presence of the public and invited dignitaries from across the political and social spectrum to honor, not in a partisan way, but in a national way, a son of the soil. And that, as they say, is that.

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