Eric Winston Coverley had three great loves in his long and productive life: first, his family, which includes his beloved wife Louise, his son Fabian, his wife Olive, and their sons Clayton, Craig and Jamie, all of whom he was immensely proud; second, his art which included his magnificent calligraphies and his role as an entertainer and promoter of Jamaican theatre and culture; and finally, his deep and abiding love of Jamaica and its people.
He was, in the truest sense of the word, a gentleman. He was a man of all seasons and lived life to its fullest who could take pleasure in the simplest things. He had an agile and avid mind that was naturally observant and inquisitive and his quick wit, sharp intelligence and wonderful humour were complimented by a sensitivity that found an outlet in his artistic talent.
Art, Theatre and Culture
Eric had the distinction of being Jamaica’s official calligrapher for over 40 years. His brilliant works, referred to as “illuminated addresses,” appeared on citations, declarations and proclamations for dignitaries and recipients of honours. His talent earned him the coveted Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts designation.
The seeds for his future career as an entertainer and promoter were perhaps planted as a very young child when his older brother took him to see the Christmas morning entertainment in downtown Kingston. Store keepers opened their doors and served refreshments to their regular customers and local musicians gathered to socialize and entertain the crowds. But of course, performing was already a natural part of life for him. From an early age the talented and artistic members of the Coverley family, who were prominent members of Coke Methodist Church, would perform at special church concerts and festivals throughout the year. In fact, it was at one such event that his future wife Louise first laid eyes on him. She was all of six years old and quite smitten with the handsome 14-year-old who was dressed in a “knickerbocker” suit and singing a duet with his sister Edna.
Over the course of almost two decades he would entertain thousands of Jamaicans with his productions of 21 Christmas Morning concerts. He was the creator and organizer of many spectacular floats, pageants and festivals and he was the man who brought the first “Coney Island Circus” to Jamaica. He thrilled audiences with his clever creations as “Chalk Talk Coverley,” and was one-half of a comedy duo with the late governor general Sir Florizel Glasspole. And who can forget his role as the corrupt police officer in the very first James Bond movie of “Dr. No”?
For his contributions to the Jamaican culture and theatre Eric was honoured in 1979 with the Order of Distinction. He received the Institute of Jamaica’s Centenary Medal for drama and dance in 1980 and in 1998 he was presented with the Institute’s silver Musgrave Medal for outstanding merit in the performing arts and theatre.
Eric and Louise met face to face when she was almost 17 years old and he was 25 and “did tink him pretty.” (Her words, not mine). He was attending a school concert at Excelsior High School scouting for new talent for his variety shows. It was there that he first saw Louise Bennett perform in Jamaican dialect. She in turn, thrilled at being able to perform in front of such a distinguished entertainer, beseeched him, “Mr. Chalk Talk, will you autograph my book?”
He paid her the first professional fee she would receive over the course of her long career – a handsome sum of one guinea which she used to buy a coveted pair of shoes! And so began a friendship that became a union when they married in New York 18 years later when he was 43 and she was 35. It was, as the saying goes, a match made in heaven – it certainly took them long enough!
Like no other partnership I have ever known, Eric and Louise defined each other. Throughout their 48-year marriage they shared a devotion and love that I will forever associate with what I consider as their theme song – “Under the Coconut Tree.”
Eric was a product of an era that valued old-fashioned traditions and embraced the ideals of chivalry. A true master of the art of being a gentleman, just being in his presence inspired you to become a better person. He was the most gallant and courtly of men, nurtured in an era when men were taught to treasure the women they cared for and treat them with the utmost respect. He liked nothing better than to have a lady greet him with a kiss and would in turn, be sure to make her feel like a queen by bestowing a kiss on the back of her hand.
His failing health was no deterrent to his charm and on one recent occasion while in hospital, when Miss Lou relayed a greeting from Rosie (their “brawta daughter”) – with a kiss on his forehead, he smugly declared, “That’s alright, I shall reserve my lips for her.”
He took pleasure in a great many things and his rich appreciation of good food had him stating in disgust in reference to the meals in the hospital, “They don’t know how to cook in this place!”
But his will to live was no doubt strengthened by his desire to continue to share that special love with his cherished Louise. That, I believe kept him going and helped him to make truly remarkable rebounds from declining health time after time.
Jamaican radio personality Barbara Gloudon recently told Toronto Star reporter Philip Mascoll, “Eric put a lot into being a good husband. Without Eric, there may not have been a Louise.”
His devotion to her knew no boundaries – he was her champion, her critic, her best friend and her most ardent fan. Several years ago when he was called upon to unveil a portrait of her painted by local artist Darrell McCalla, although Eric had had no forewarning that he would have been asked to do so, he was quick to respond – “I have in fact, been unveiling her every day for many years!”
His quick reparteé was legendary as was his honesty. How many of us were subjected to his sweeping scrutiny and bluntly told that it would appear that we had “gained some weight.” A dapper and fastidious dresser himself, he always put his best foot forward, no matter the circumstances – not a hair out of place and armed with that famous smile.
He was a proud man, refusing to succumb and acknowledge the fragility of his health. It was with great suspicion that he observed the lift provided by the hospital to assist in lowering and raising him in and out of his chair. Regarding the bright red contraption with disdain – he said very loudly in the full presence of hospital staff, “I will have nothing to do with that ‘piece of ol’ iron!’ ”
Eric never did master the delicate art of whispering.