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Honours for Community Stalwart

Mr Charles Watler, MBE

The youngest of 11 siblings from a pioneering Cayman Islands family, Mr. Charles Wesley Watler, JP, (73) is this year’s sole recipient of Birthday Honours from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Acknowledged for his contributions to the Cayman Islands community, Mr. Watler, will become a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Perhaps his most famous role was as the “Father of the Immigration Board”, where he donated countless hours of personal time over the years to meeting the Islands’ growing labour needs whilst also pursuing training and development for Caymanians.

Mr. Watler credits his commitment to community service to observing from a young age the profound kindness of his mother, Jane Catherine Watler (nee Bodden).

He also acknowledges the significant impact that his farming background had on him. “Farming was part of our culture and upbringing. It contributed to a strong work ethic and resilience which is indicative of our Caymanian heritage,” he says.

After graduating first in his class at the Cayman Islands High School (CIHS), he relocated to Port Arthur, Texas to pursue further studies, returning as an accountant.

His first employer Cable and Wireless (C&W) grew to be one of the largest companies in the Islands. During 19 years of service there he achieved the rank of manager before leaving to run a family business. He then went on to set up his own real estate and development company, building condos, apartments and development projects.

While at C&W, he was in charge of training and here he found his calling. He helped set up a system to scout top students each year from the public high school, as candidates for summer internship positions and eventual full-time jobs at the telecoms provider

For those Caymanians already employed by the company, he sought out technical, engineering and managerial training opportunities, whether at corporate training facilities in other Caribbean countries, Europe, or other educational institutions overseas. A number of Caymanians who benefited from that early training progressed within the firm and hold high positions today.

Recognising his aptitude in this area, Government named him a member of the Caymanian Protection Board in 1976, and he retained his membership for a number of years when it became the Immigration Board.

Here, he once again concentrated on getting Caymanians into local businesses, corporations and firms. He also reached out to corporate entities to launch training and apprenticeship programmes. In addition, he sought and obtained from large businesses, scholarships for bright young Caymanians, particularly those in accountancy, his field of specialisation.

Mr. Watler thanks those expatriate-led companies that provided scholarships, education and training, and who understood the merits of a well-trained pool of Caymanian staff.

Young people also benefited from his good will in many other ways. Realising government high school graduates needed help passing their SAT entrance exams to get into reputable universities in the United States, he raised funds to set up a tutoring programme and purchase tutorial materials. This was also accompanied by various donations to the high school such as ham radios, the use of which helped prepare students to join companies like C&W.

His focus on developing talent also extended to the incarcerated population, where he helped to train prisoners in trades such as electrical work. These courses were conducted at his request by private companies.

He also raised $14,500, to purchase 13 computers and set up a computer club in the prison and provided a tutor free of charge for over two months. He fondly remembers one released prisoner coming to tell him that he had successfully completed a trade course, and was now gainfully employed.

Other boards to which he has contributed over the years include: Cayman Airways, CINICO, Housing Development Corporation, Health Services Authority, and Prison Inspection. A Justice of the Peace he has served as a Juvenile Court magistrate, and was a natural choice to head the “Education and Training” group during the Vision 2008 strategic planning exercise.

A big blow to him was the passing in 2014 of his beloved wife Jacqueline, a first generation Scandinavian American from New York. They shared 45 years together as well as five children and 10 grandchildren. “Jacqueline was a great influence on my life,” he comments. “Her kindness, optimism and dedication to family, as well as consideration for other people at work and at church where she helped with the youth, greatly assisted me in my fundraising and efforts to provide training for others. Family mattered so much to her that she never hesitated to give them all her time, especially catering to our children when they were pursuing their education.”

He says the love and support of his family, as well as his love of helping others, have helped him to carry on since her loss.

As an example he cites an incident days after his wife passed. While out on a walk with his son, they stopped at the Frances Bodden Girls Home where he learnt they needed to repair their stove and immediately called an electrician to do the necessary work.

Another comfort has been his work with his church, where he has been an elder for 34 years, served as secretary for 33 years, and periodically as treasurer.

In addition to time, service and money, Mr. Watler has also made generous donations of land to the community. These include land for the Governor Gore Bird Sanctuary in Spotts and land for the Agriculture Pavilion which is named after his brother Stacey.

He saw the need for a safe play area for the young children of his church. So, he paid for a fence which enclosed a play yard, donated a swing set, tables, and benches, and named it in memory of his mother. He also raised funds and donated a basketball court for the youth, which has increased youth attendance on Friday evenings.

Mr. Watler has given back to the community in many other ways, all of which could not be listed here. He notes, however, that this could not have been achieved without the hard work and support of his wife, Jacqueline, by his side.

His advice to today’s young people: “Pursue your education as far as possible. Even adversity makes you learn. And learn to be self-confident.”

Sidebar: Profound Impact

At a young age, one of his mother’s actions had a profound impact on his life, Mr. Charles Watler remembers. His mother, Jane Catherine Bodden, had married his father, Lanaman Ellsworth Watler, a cattle farmer who also spent time at sea. While his father was away at sea, his mother and older siblings raised the family.

Even today, Mr. Watler is moved to tears describing a singular act of kindness by Mrs Watler many years ago. One day, he had helped his father round up the cattle to take them to the government-run cattle dip in Savannah, when his father sent him to fetch money from his mother to pay for the dip.

When he arrived home to get the money, he learnt from his mother that a lady from Bodden Town had come to seek food from her for her children. She gave the woman meat, fruits, and staples to help feed her family. Then the woman told his mother that although she now had food, she did not have money to buy oil to cook the food. His mother, who had a kind heart, gave away all the money they had saved for the cattle to help the lady buy cooking oil.

Mr. Watler had to relay this to his father and help him bring the cattle back to the pasture he had taken them from, a fact that made Mr. Watler Sr. understandably annoyed.

Back at home, his mother stood her ground with his father, justifying her actions by saying she knew the other lady’s needs were genuine and dire.

Soon after, his mother left to attend to a sick woman in Bodden Town. When she returned home, she received a letter from her son who wrote to say that he was going from New York to India which would take four to six months. He had tucked into the letter US$1,000 for them, a princely sum in those days, he recalls.

Mr. Watler says this incident taught him the importance of human kindness and demonstrated that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

For further information contact: Bina Mani