Last Tuesday the region received the sad news that Rex Nettleford — the iconic, irrepressible, one-of-a-kind personality from Jamaica — had died as a result of a heart attack. Born Ralston Milton Nettleford and known to all as just “Rex,” he was a man who was larger than life and packed into it far more than the average 77-year-old man could.
Rex was born in humble circumstances in western Jamaica but was a brilliant student who went on to study history at the University of the West Indies and become a Rhodes Scholar in 1959.
At Oxford University he gained degrees in political science, after which he returned to UWI as a faculty member.
He established himself as a serious academic with his books Mirror, Mirror (1969) and Manley and the New Jamaica (1971). In 1996 he was named Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, retiring in 2006 to become Vice-Chancellor Emeritus.
Simultaneous with his academic career, Rex studied dance and founded the internationally acclaimed National Dance Theater Company of Jamaica in 1962, the same year Jamaica gained Independence. He served as the Company’s senior choreographer, lead teacher, and principal male dancer until a few years before his death.
With the Director’s personal interest in history, the NDTC has explored and presented Jamaican and regional culture and history, never shying away from political statement. It tells its tales by way of Afro-Caribbean and modern dance, story-telling, pantomime and song. One of the Company’s latest works explores the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the population of New Orleans.
All these achievements say nothing about Rex Nettleford the man, who commanded immediate attention when he entered a room. With his erect stance and dramatic voice, he always became the center of attention. His opinion was eagerly sought on a wide range of topics, and he never disappointed because he read and knew so much. He appeared confident, some would even say
arrogant, and yet he always remembered to ask about your mother or the little cousin who danced with his Junior Theater. He cared passionately about everything that came before him.
We will miss him, but the Caribbean will be all the richer for the life of Rex Nettleford.