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Shock and tears at death of Obie Wilchcombe

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By DENISE MAYCOCK

Tribune Staff Reporter

dmaycock@tribunemedia.net

A CASKET draped in the Bahamian flag arrived at the Odyssey Aviation Airport in New Providence from Grand Bahama with the body of Obie Wilchcombe at 5.55pm yesterday.

Friends and cabinet ministers looked on in shock, struggling to process the loss as honour guards carried the remains to a hearse headed for the morgue.

 When news broke early yesterday morning that the Social Services, Information and Broadcasting Minister had died, it sent his supporters reeling and shook the political landscape.

 Prime Minister Philip “Brave” Davis quickly flew to Grand Bahama, where he found crowds of people gathered at the Rand Memorial Hospital. In the following hours, some residents of West End Grand Bahama, Mr Wilchcombe’s constituency, participated in motorcades and commiserated at the Progressive Liberal Party’s office in Grand Bahama.

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 Mr Wilchcombe’s death at 64 came after he maintained a robust public profile.

 On Thursday, he attended ZNS’ relaunch event. On Friday, he attended George Smith’s memorial in Exuma. On Sunday, he spoke at a Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) women’s branch meeting in Grand Bahama. Among other things, he urged those attending to help boost support for women’s issues.

 The Tribune understands he was found unresponsive shortly before 7.30am yesterday. Efforts to provide him with CPR at the scene failed. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

 Mr Wilchcombe was first elected to office in 2002 as the representative for West End Grand Bahama and Bimini. He served as minister of tourism in the two Christie administrations. Before entering politics, he was a journalist who joined the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas in 1975. During his journalism career, he held positions as deputy director of news, news director and assistant general manager.

 His political career began in 1994 when former Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling appointed him as a senator.

 In addition to his current ministerial profile, Mr Wilchcombe was the leader of government business in the House of Assembly.

 Some praised his speaking abilities, remembering him as an effortless orator capable of engaging audiences with his typically unscripted speeches.

 His death will trigger a bye-election in his constituency.

 The entrance to the Rand Memorial Hospital was cordoned off yesterday as a large crowd gathered. Many West End residents stood in the southern parking lot, crying and hugging each other.

 Mr Davis arrived around 11am with Education Minister Glenys Hanna-Martin and others.

 He said Mr Wilchcombe’s contribution to developing the country was exemplary. He praised his accomplishments as tourism minister, noting he helped promote the film industry and sports tourism.

 “We are still riding on that to this day and we are hosting international world-class sports events. And, yes, we have eight million tourists coming in today, but again it started with the foundation laid by him, and for that, we are always very grateful,” he said.

In a statement, Mr Davis said Mr Wilchcombe was an innovative broadcaster: “the first to report a story, not from behind a desk, but walking and talking to the camera”.

“This personal touch reflected the easy, intimate style with which he addressed everyone.

“He was resolute and courageous in his reporting and his defence of the Fourth Estate. He is perhaps the only journalist in the country to have been sent to prison for refusing to reveal his sources, an episode that continued to traumatise him many years later.”

Jackson Wilchcombe Jr, the older brother, said his brother seemed fine when he saw him on Thursday.

“You don’t know because he is always just a smooth operator, he is just calm,” he said.

“I want people to remember his kindness and his love and care for people,” he added. “He was just like my mother. I always told him he took after mommy. He gives his heart and doesn’t worry about it.”

Grace Maycock, the vice chairman of the PLP women’s branch, said Mr Wilchcombe delivered an “awesome” speech hours before his death.

“This is so unreal because he looked like he was in perfect health,” said Lisa Higgs, centre manager at Pineridge Urban Renewal Centre. “Everyone is in disbelief and I don’t know how we will function for the rest of the day.”

Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said he attended a luncheon last Friday at which Mr Wilchcombe was present.

“It could not have occurred to any of us present that Obie was not in stable health,” he said. “When I recently spoke with him, he was elated that following cabinet changes, information and broadcasting had been added to his portfolio.”

Mr Ingraham’s successor, Perry Christie, said his friendship with Mr Wilchcombe lasted over three decades.

He said Mr Wilchcombe served with distinction as minister of tourism.

“On the partisan front, I will always cherish the memories of Obie’s steadfast loyalty to the great cause for which the Progressive Liberal Party has always stood,” he said.