Richard Bernal — The Mona years

Since
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s death on January 4, Richard Bernal’s achievements as a diplomat, economist, and scholar have been hailed.

Jamaica’s ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 2001, he had a distinguished career that included stints with the Organization of American States and The University of the West Indies.

Bernal, who collapsed in Norbrook, St Andrew, while out on his daily walk, was 73.

Long before he negotiated trade deals and helped direct economic policy, he was simply “Richie” or Richard, the only son of Franklin Bernal, a respected painter who designed several postage stamps. His family were among the original residents of Mona Heights, a middle-class St Andrew community built by the Matalon family.

The Bernals lived at Daisy Avenue. Their neighbours were mainly civil servants, including Dr Arthur Wint, the first Jamaican to win an Olympic gold medal; Don Mills, future ambassador to the United Nations; and public health inspector Cyprian Dawes.

Bernal’s peers included Ward Mills, son of Don Mills; Stewart Stephenson, Kingston College (KC) cricketer and footballer, Jamaica national footballer, future Jamaica consul general to Toronto, and ambassador to Cuba; Dr Winston Dawes, future senior medical officer at May Pen Hospital; banker Peter Moses; the Murray brothers — Gerry, Richard, and Michael; Olympic athlete Michael Fray; tennis player Richard Russell; Robert Thompson, who became Anglican Bishop of Kingston; and Dr Michael Witter.

Mills’ son, Ward, told the Jamaica Observer that his family moved to Mona Heights in 1958. He recalls a tight-knit community that participated in recreational activities with most of the boys, including himself and Bernal, attending nearby Jamaica College (JC).

“Because we were part of the Mona Heights family, Franklin Bernal used to encourage us to come around to the house and we would play cricket and show movies… reel to reel. Richard was like our little brother,” Mills recalled.

He added that, even as a youth, Bernal stood out as a dapper dresser, was always on time and well-researched. Those traits he took into adulthood.

“I could see the potential in Richard from his determination and sharp intelligence. His understanding of the world and how it works. You could always relate to him, his whole attitude never changed,” said Mills.

Stephenson moved to the Blue Castle scheme in Mona Heights in 1958. The son of Burchell Stephenson, a government lab technician, he remembers houses still under construction during his early years there. His initial meeting with Bernal was as members of the 1964 Mona Minor League football team that also had Moses and Gerry Murray.

“Richard was an outstanding centre half, tall and skilful, and read the game well. Always immaculate,” said Stepenson.

He and Bernal were on opposing sides in the Sunlight Cup cricket competition, playing for KC and JC. Like Mills, Stepenson noticed his friend’s early promise.

“Richard was a born leader. Always affable with an air of distinction, but he never lost the common touch,” he said.

Winston Dawes is the son of Cyprian Dawes. Born in St Mary, his family went to Mona Heights in 1969 and lived in the community’s Palmetto Avenue/Garden Boulevard section, a hop and skip away from Daisy Avenue.

Like Mills, Dawes was “a little older” than Bernal, who, he joked, “was not a complete saint” as he enjoyed playing the odd practical joke. After leaving Munro College in fifth form, Dawes went to sixth form at JC, where they got reacquainted.

“He was a calming influence on the rest of us. When we wanted to do something mischievous, he would say, ‘relax’, so there was that diplomacy about him that probably saved us from getting into trouble,” said Dawes.

Mills, Stephenson, and Dawes maintained ties with Bernal as adults. Mills last spoke to him one month ago by phone, while Dawes and he attended JC Old Boys and Mona reunion events prior to the emergence of COVID-19 in 2020.

Stephenson credits Bernal for guiding him when, as a neophyte, he joined the diplomatic corps in January 2001. Although he attained international recognition, Bernal retained the humility of his youth in Mona Heights.

“There are some friends, as they develop and move into areas of prominence in society, they become distant. I can tell you, Richard was never like that,” said Stephenson.

Richard Bernal, who was awarded the Order of Jamaica in 2017, is survived by his wife Margaret, two sons, and other relatives.

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