Son of Edgar James Whiteman, May Pen Elementary School Head-teacher, and Mrs. Merab Whiteman, housewife and intensive social worker’ Burchell Anthony Whiteman attended Munro College from January 1949 to 1955 on a government scholarship. In those pre-Common-Entrance days, there were 14 of them for the entire island, one for each parish, which means he was the top student for Clarendon.
He did so well in lower third (now 1st form), that he was promoted to Lower 4th (now 3rd form) in 1950. So essentially, he skipped second form, and unlike most of us who would still be bragging about it at every possible opportunity, he remains as humble as ever.
Well Rounded Academic
He does not boast an impressive record as a troublemaker, and as such, his academic performance remained strong throughout his time at Munro. He got his School Certificate Grade I in 1952, Higher School Certificate in 1954, and won an Exhibition University College of the West Indies (UCWI) Scholarship in 1955. He never spent all his days buried in books, however, and found time to be active in house sports competitions, do some debating and some drama – not necessarily together – and was House Captain of Calder House. He was also Treasurer of the Music Society, and has maintained a special lifelong interest in Jazz.
His leadership abilities also led to his appointment as Head Perfect of Munro in 1954. While he was head prefect, the small matter of the annual party at Hampton, now called the HOP, then called the Hampton Dance, provided some controversy.
The brand-new headmaster, a very young Richard Roper, with Christian zeal ablaze and somewhat skittish about sensual events involving music and dancing, insisted that the party would have to end at the indecently decent hour of 9 p.m. The boys were livid, and the Prefect body threatened to revolt by boycotting an upcoming school function, a military band tattoo in which they were to play a significant role. Burchell delivered the protest himself, and gently assured the headmaster in true union fashion that he could not guarantee normality.
The novice headmaster was taken aback, and after promising to think about it, did a bit of protesting himself at what he saw as an ultimatum coming from students, and so he stuck to 9pm. Rather than risk not seeing the girls at all, they boys went along, and somewhat to their pleasant surprise, found out that Mr. Roper had given instructions to their chaperone to allow them to stay until close to 10 pm.
He won the ISSA Scholarship in 1962 and gained his first degree in English with French at the UCWI, and he gives full credit to Munro Second Master and French tutor Guy Wiehen for his prowess in French. By 1965 he gained his Master’s in Education at Birmingham University, England. From 1965 he taught at York Castle, and incidentally had the prophetic task of welcoming three teachers recruited from England on 3-year contracts in 1968.
Prophetic, because one of them, Joline, became his wife in 1970, and eventually mother of his two daughters Lisa and Gail, who today respectively help to manage the legal and telecommunications entities Harrison and Harrison and Digicel.
In 1969 he was appointed Headmaster of York Castle High School in Browns Town and in 1975 became founding Principal of the newly formed Browns Town Community College. His teaching and administration already accounted for 24 years of service by that time.
Somewhere in around 1982, he applied for the post of Headmaster of Munro College, and the fact that he never got the job remains perhaps the only big mistake a certain legendary headmaster ever made, but even luminary legends are entitled to rare mistakes.
A Decent Politician
Munro’s loss was the nation’s gain, and at the end of his Community College stint he entered representative politics as the PNP candidate for NW ST. Ann, successfully winning the seat in 1989 and again in 1993. In 1989, the JLP candidate was the Chairman of his old Community College Board, Ernest Augustus Smith. To the credit of them both, and even though Ernie is a lawyer, it was widely reported that they ran a clean contest based on issues and not on personalities or mudslinging. He won the seat, and was made Minister of Education, Youth and Culture from 1992 to 2002, where his main contribution was in the area of academic curriculum design.
In 2002 he was made Minister of Information by the P.J. Paterson-led administration, where, in addition to making even controversial issues more palatable, he commanded respect and even affection from both sides of the aisle as well as the wider public, and developed a strong reputation as something hitherto thought extinct, entirely non-existent, or as dubious as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster – everyone agreed that here was a truly decent politician! He was never the loudest or most physically imposing fellow, but he towered over all his colleagues in Gordon House in that regard.
What do you do with a decent politician? You make him a diplomat. In 2007 he was appointed Jamaica’s representative to the Court of St. James’s, i.e. High Commissioner to London, where he served with distinction until 2009.
Burchell Whiteman has received a number of awards, including the Super Lion Award from Chancellor Hall, and the Methodist Layman of the Year Award (yes, he is a lay preacher). In 1998, in what he modestly describes as an accident of history, he was awarded the Order of the Southern Cross of Brazil for services to education in the region through CARICOM and UNESCO. In 2006 he received the Order of Jamaica, and in 2011 and 2013 he was awarded honorary doctorates by The Mico & UTech respectively.
He is currently a Board Member of the Commonwealth of Learning, the Commonwealth Distance Institute, and currently chairs the Integrity Commission, charged with reducing the level of corruption in governing circles in Jamaica.
His interpersonal skills and unruffled patience are legendary, and have served him well in the labyrinthine world of politics and diplomacy. His mother told him early in life that if you insert the top button of your shirt incorrectly, the whole thing will never come out right, and you have to start over again. Thus, he always tries to plan well and execute with efficiency.
For the above and other reasons, Ambassador The Hon. Burchell Whiteman was proudly inducted into the Munro College Old Boys Association Hall of Fame.