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No ordinary woman

By Andre Bagoo Sunday, January 12 2014

click on pic to zoom in
The late Therese Mills...
The late Therese Mills...

LOOKING at her, it was hard to tell no other journalist in the country achieved what she did. Marie-Therese Barratt Mills, known to her colleagues simply as Mrs Mills, had a humble demeanour, a gentle voice and carried her small frame in a sprightly manner. Yet, this was no ordinary woman. She had a bravura career which saw her interview presidents and international stars and work her way to becoming the first woman editor of a national newspaper and, later, the founding Editor-in-Chief of Newsday. A true pioneer.

Mills, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of 85, was last Tuesday interred after a funeral mass held at the Church of the Nativity, Crystal Stream, Diego Martin. Up until her death, she was Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and Editor-in-Chief of Newsday playing a direct role in the paper right up until her last days. She was a gifted journalist, with a long, varied and exciting career, and devoted about 60 years of her life to the profession.

Marie-Therese Barratt Mills was born on December 14, 1928, at Woodbrook to Arthur Cyril Barratt and Alice Marion Barratt. The family later moved to Norfolk Street, Belmont. Mills would often reminisce about her childhood, recalling dinner debates between her parents; having her hair combed; and being completely taken aback by her father’s love for her mother. Mills often traced her desire to enter the field of communicating news to her father, who was responsible for the first inter-island telegraph transmission.

Mills attended Providence Girls’ Catholic School. In 2012, she recalled her time at that school fondly, joking about one incident which saw her accused of “carnage” in the school garden and another memorable incident, an attempt at singing a difficult song as part of a duet for a school function.

“It was composed with sopranos in mind,” she said. “By the third verse, the students could take it no more. Sniggers turned to outright laughter, some brave souls actually started slow clapping.” She ended up laughing too, alongside her co-singer, and both were hustled off-stage.

In 1945, at the age of 17, Mills joined the Port-of-Spain Gazette as a library assistant and social page reporter. Given the trajectory of her career – including her later role in fighting for press freedom – she could not have chosen a better paper.

The Gazette had been made famous by one of the outstanding editors in Trinidad’s history, APT Ambard, who fought a contempt of court case all the way to the Privy Council in 1934, settling once and for all the doctrine of Freedom of the Press. Also at the paper at the time was John Babb, then a court reporter. By fate, Babb would later join the team assembled by Mills decades later when Newsday formed in 1994, where today he is Associate Editor.

“Somehow, maybe through fate, we followed each other in the media over the past 67 years,” Babb recently said. “Working at her side, I was able to read her, while learning at the same time. Don’t cross her path, or else you’ll feel the sharp edge of her sword. But don’t be fooled. She was as motherly as they came. She was strict; fair, quick to forgive, and when it came to reporting, she usually succeeded in her endeavours.”

Mills worked at the Gazette for 11 years. It was her first job. Then, from 1958 to 1964, she worked as an assistant at the Visitors Department of the British Council London. This department was responsible for organising visits to Britain of Commonwealth and other Heads of State and officials and for student placement in the United Kingdom. It was one of only two periods in her working life when she was not a working journalist, the other being a stint as public relations manager of Trinidad Tesoro Oil Company from 1978 to 1979.

After living in England for eight years, Mills returned to work at the Trinidad Guardian in 1964. From 1964 to 1970 she worked as a senior feature writer/reporter. Then, from 1970 to 1978 she worked as news editor, Sunday Guardian. During this period, the Guardian achieved the highest ever circulation of any newspaper in the history of the country. In this same period, Trinidad and Tobago became a Republic, extricating itself from the British Monarchy. For the first time, the Queen was no longer head of State.

Among the pieces Mills published at this important time was an exclusive interview with the country’s first Republican President Sir Ellis Clarke. One of the questions Mills asked Sir Ellis was this: “Do you foresee a stage of development in this country, a male-oriented society in many ways, where a woman, however admirably qualified, would be elected President?” Clarke replied, “I certainly do.” Though she did not live to see a first female President, she played her own part in the advancement of women’s rights.

From 1979 to 1990, Mills was editor of the Sunday Guardian. In 1989, she became the Trinidad Guardian editor-in-chief, the first woman to hold such a post. Under her tenure, Mills witnessed, alongside her colleagues, the incredible assault on democracy of 1990 which saw the newspaper’s offices at St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain, subject to gunfire by Jamaat Al Muslimeen insurgents in the midst of an attack on the city.

Mills held the post of editor-in-chief until retirement in 1993. Of her pioneering achievement, University of the West Indies Professor Surujpal Teelucksingh, in October 2012, remarked, “the path that she blazed paved the way for the current vibrant role and leadership that women now exert in the industry – in lunar speak: a small step for Therese Mills has produced a giant leap for womankind.”

“We are fully aware that it has not been always a woman’s world. One can guess that such a groundbreaking ascent would have required courage and commitment,” Teelucksingh said.

But that ascent was not going to be the end of the story for Therese Mills.

On retirement as editor-in-chief of Trinidad Guardian in June 1993, she was asked to start a new national newspaper. Mills accepted the challenge and on September 20, 1993 launched Newsday, less than three months after leaving the Guardian.

Babb recalls, “One day, I received a phone call from her at home for a private meeting. Private? What for? I enquired. Just attend, was her reply. Through curiousity, as a newspaperman, I did attend, only to be told by her that a group of businessmen wanted to establish a newspaper in Trinidad. A third? I enquired. She said yes. The business group admitted they had the money, but not the expertise.”

He continues, “Mrs Mills accepted, and decided to rope in other experienced journalists to produce a good newspaper. That good news did not last as the hawkers had pointed out to us. On the third day of publication there was a double murder, and Newsday never looked back from then. We were off from the starting blocks with much gusto. All of this, just after we were labelled as geriatrics.” Mills’ leadership drove the paper to great success.

“The doubting Thomases insisted there was no room for a third newspaper in Trinidad and Tobago,” Babb says. “They said we would last three months; then, we would last six months.

But while the doubting Thomases watched from the sidelines, we were at our jobs tooth and nail to prove them wrong.”

In four years under Mills’ leadership, Newsday achieved the position of number one daily in newspaper readership, ahead of two other long established dailies. Newsday held this No 1 lead from 1997 to 2003. It was regarded in the industry as an incredible achievement after many had predicted the paper, now 20-years-old, would not even last a month.

Throughout all stages of her long career, however, Mills remained, first and foremost, a journalist. She won the Caribbean Publishing and Broadcasting Association’s Most Outstanding Award for Caribbean journalists in 1989 for a piece of reportage entitled “Tale of bribery, corruption – These were no ordinary men”. It was a saga on the corrupt politics of John O’Halloran, Francis Prevatt and others. The piece also won the 1989 BWIA Excellence in Journalism Award for most outstanding social and political commentary.

The last paragraph of the story read, “These were no ordinary men. Hopefully for the sake of the country and the PNM, the NAR and any other party to come, we shall not see their like again.” But in her long career, Mrs Mills lived to see the emergence of even more bobool and crime in the country she was so clearly committed to. Among them were the Piarco International Airport scandal – which is still to this day lingering before the courts – and the Udecott/Calder Hart affair which for many brought back memories of the O’Halloran saga. She also oversaw’s Newsday’s coverage of the Dole Chadee murders and subsequent murder trial. The guilty verdict of that trial produced a special edition – one of several which the paper pioneered – as well as an innovative front cover which simply bore the word “Guilty” nine times, one for each accused at the trial of the murder of the Baboolal family.

Throughout her long career, Mrs Mills saw the country’s first democratic elections, the transition from a newly-Independent state to a full Republic, the oil boom and corruption sagas that emerged, the tenures of prime ministers Dr Eric Williams, George Chambers, ANR Robinson, Basdeo Panday, Patrick Manning and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the first woman to have the job of running the country.

It is hard to picture it now, but Mrs Mills also worked in times which also saw the rise of the motorcar, television, mobile phones, computers and the internet. She also would have lived through times which saw the rise of the first black US President Barack Obama, the assassination of John F Kennedy and man’s first landing on the moon.

She covered many major international conferences for the Guardian and even once interviewed Sally Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe. Mills also interviewed Tarquin Olivier, a son of the legendary British actor Sir Lawrence Olivier.

In 2005, Mills, wrote a commentary for the BBC World Service on Chadee, the death penalty and remnants of colonial power in Trinidad and Tobago society.

Mills also covered the US Presidential elections of 1984 at which Ronald Reagan was elected; Venezuelan national elections of 1973; Grenada’s politics prior to and during the upheaval of October 1983 and the Commonwealth Press Union Conference, Hong Kong in 1990 where the main issue on the agenda was the return of Hong Kong to China. Her pen was always sharp and, in addition to her reporting, she was known for her rigorous editorials. She was awarded, for three successive years, the Excellence in Journalism award for the most outstanding newspaper editorial in 1985, 1986 and 1987.

Her ability to write strong editorials was a good match given her role as a staunch defender of the free press and freedom of expression. In later years, under the PNM, Mills faced attempts to starve the Newsday of State advertising revenue, appeared before a Parliamentary committee which sought to ban the paper from covering Parliament. Also, under the PP administration, she came to see the day when her newspaper’s offices were raided by the police in a spurious attempt to unearth its sources at the behest of the Integrity Commission, an incident she once described as the biggest challenge the paper ever faced. Her response was to put pen to paper. In an editorial, she wrote, “They will rue the day.”

Mills was a foundation member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) in Cyprus and served as a CJA executive representative for the Caribbean. She was also a foundation member of the Journalists Association of Trinidad and Tobago; and served as vice- chairman of the National Commission on the Status of Women appointed by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in 1975 during the UN International Women’s Year. She also conducted a number of courses for journalists, including one in Guyana in July 1993.

In 2012, Mills received the Chaconia Gold Medal for her service to journalism. In 1987, she also received the Humming Bird Medal, also for her contribution to journalism. She was also honoured in 1997 by the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago for dedicated service to the field. In October 2012, the University of the West Indies conferred the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters on her.

Mills was also the author of several books for children, including Great West Indians (Longmans), Canefield Fire (Macmillan), Life of Norman Manley (Giuseppi Publications) and several others published in Trinidad and Tobago. A number of her children’s stories have been converted to DVD format by the Ministry of Education for use in schools. One of her favourite short-stories was about her favourite fruit, the avocado.

Mills, a single mother, is survived by her three children, Michele, Suzanne, and Roger. She was the grandmother of Jerome and Yohance Simonette, Joshua and Amy Matthew, and Nicholas, Nathaniel and Noelle Mills. She was the mother-in-law of Lucia Hunte and grandmother-in-law of Nadine Power-Simonette. She was also the great-grandmother of Adonai Simonette and Josiah Fields.

Two of her three children, Suzanne and Roger have a Master’s degree in Journalism. Suzanne is a former editor-in-chief of Newsday and a columnist on the paper. Michele, her eldest daughter is a graduate teacher of English and English Literature and completed a Doctorate in Education at Bristol University, England, last year.

“To her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, Therese Mills was and always will be mommy, granny and great-granny,” Michele said last week. “She was a single parent that was always prepared to move heaven and earth for her children and grandchildren and often did. For us, she represented both mum and dad growing up.”

Mills was also the sister of George Barratt (deceased), Marion Meyer, Trevor Barratt (deceased), Harold Barratt, and Anne Barratt-Martins.

Mills, a Roman Catholic, was a religious woman. Some of her favourite hymns included: ‘One God’ and ‘I Walk With God’. Another of her favourite songs was ‘A Day in the Life of a Fool’, sung by Frank Sinatra in 1956. Hamid Latiff – the first local to appear on television in this country and a close friend of Mills – last week sang the Sinatra song acapella at the Holy Mass held in thanksgiving for Mills.

“She was a wonderful person,” he said. “We go way back. Her family once lived in Belmont and we were close friends.”

One of the lessons Mills wished to leave behind was delivered by her at a graduation ceremony at her alma mater, Providence, in November 2012. She told students, “We must not allow ourselves to be distracted or side tracked as we pursue our goals. We must believe in ourselves, have faith in ourselves and be the best we can be. There will be disappointments, oh yes, and failures, but we have to move on and never give up.”

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