Robert James Neish was born April 22, 1940, in St. Andrew, first of three sons of Captain James V. Neish and Marion Aitken-Neish.
He attended St. Andrew Preparatory School then Munro and Jamaica Colleges. His stay at Munro from 1949 to 1950 was brief, but intensely character-forming, and enough to provide him with a firm foundation. His memories of Munro include Headmaster Ward’s discipline, Ms. Lucy’s baby dormitory, Mr. Dunleavy’s cross- country runs, cold showers, Laddie who made stilts, kites, and gigs and sold them to the boys, his non- brilliant academic performances. He remembers also his being one of those who had to pump the pipe organ while Mr. Wiehen played, and also William Boland – a crippled master who gave him a caning which landed mostly on the back of his knees instead of on the proper place.
Family economic constraints forced him to have to leave the first choice of Munro and its boarding fees in favour of next-best option Jamaica College, as a day boy.
His parents wanted him to be an engineer, but his interest in rifle shooting – which begun at Munro – and in the cadet corps (which he was too young to join at Munro), led him to join the cadets at JC and to desire a career in the army. His father told him that Jamaica did not have a real army, and if he was really interested, he would have to join the British army like his father had. Robert persisted and did it his way, and then some.
Straight out of school, he plunged into what he would help make a real army – Jamaica Local Forces, West India Regiment, which soon became the first battalion, Jamaica Regiment. He attended the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst; the Warminster School of Infantry; and the British army Staff College at Camberley.
Early in the process, in 1967, he married Janet E. Wells, and they have two sons; James, who is at Imperial Optical here in Jamaica, and Richard, who is a computer programmer in London, England.
He spent 15 years in the JDF Air Wing, from 1958 to 1973, where he was awarded the Air Force Cross in 1968 for the rescue of a British soldier who had fallen down a steep and deep incline at Blue Mountain Peak. The soldier’s back was injured, and a tricky helicopter operation managed by Robert Neish saved his life.
In June, 1976, Peruvian Ambassador to Jamaica Fernando Rodriguez Oliva was stabbed to death after surprising burglars in his unguarded Kingston home. Then Colonel Neish had the job of escorting the body to Lima, Peru, and attending the funeral on behalf of the Jamaican Government. He bought the only English-speaking newspaper he saw, the Miami Herald, where he found out that Jamaica was under a state of emergency. When he returned to Jamaica, he found himself named commandant of the detention centre at Up Park Camp. He ran it with compassion and non-partisan treatment, and also brought in the services of JAMAL to teach any illiterate inmates to read. To this day former detainees greet him with respect.
He was appointed Chief of Staff in 1979, at the rank of Brigadier, and promoted in rank to Major General in 1982. Internationally, it was the strange time of the not-so-cold war, which added fuel to local political tensions, and after becoming Chief of Staff, he was immediately plunged into a “baptism of fire” in the prolonged and heated run up to the 1980 election. His watchwords of “professionalism, loyalty, military discipline and impartiality” were crucial to his leadership of the army during that difficult period.
He was barely out of that fire when “Operation Fury,” the US-led invasion of Grenada, arrived in October 1983, after the arrest and murder of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. An Air Jamaica plane was commandeered to take 120 JDF men to Barbados, from where an American army plane transported them to Grenada. Their performance and professionalism positively surprised the Americans, who were content to pull out after 6 months and leave 300 JDF soldiers in place to keep the peace.
He served as Chief of Staff for 11 years until retirement in 1990, completing 32 years of total service, after which, for a while, he seemed determined never to shave again. He would have earned the right, having already earned the distinction of being the longest serving army Chief of Staff in Independent Jamaica.
After leading the Mona Rehabilitation Foundation for eight years between 1996 and 2004, Robert Neish led the Digicel Foundation as Executive Director for over seven years, and has now been promoted to the role of Executive Vice Chairman. In addition to his continued philanthropic work there, he’s also been involved in leadership positions at different times in several other social causes. To name a few: Chairman, Jamaica Legion; Vice President, Jamaica Paralympic Association; member of the PSOJ Standing Committee on National Security, Board Member of Crime Stop, member of the Central Committee of Jamaica Red Cross and St. John’s Council for Jamaica, and Vice President of Jamaica Scout Council. He is a Past President of the Rotary Club of Kingston, and is currently President of the Royal Air Forces Association, Jamaica Branch.
He is an Anglican and not an angler, but still enjoys boating at the Royal Jamaica Yacht Club as well as swimming. He is a member of the Liguanea club, and enjoys the activities of the Jamaica Officers Association.
In 1982, the government of Jamaica awarded him the Order of Distinction, Commander Class (CD) for service to his country. For the above and other reasons, an officer and a gentleman, Major General Robert James Neish, was proudly inducted into the Munro College Old Boys Association Hall of Fame.