When the history of Barbados is written, there will surely be a prominent place for the name Sir Charles Othneil Williams.
The 88-year-old, larger than life businessman, passed away on November 19 at the Bayview Hospital and the announcement of his death took many by surprise. We know that death will come to all of us, but the octogenarian seemed to defy age, and until recently, was happily riding his beloved horses and playing polo – his Sunday ritual.
Sir Charles, known by the moniker COW was unapologetic about his brash Bajan accent, his no-nonsense style and aggressive business practices. But those around him knew that outside his tough exterior, there was a genuine, selfless, and generous man who helped those, whom he felt were like him, and achieved against the odds.
He made it clear he wanted to be wealthy and to do much better than his relatively humble beginnings. But he was also determined to do so, not by taking short-cuts but by being known for quality workmanship and ethical practices.
Sir Charles was human. He made mistakes and sometimes offended. But for many Barbadians, he was given a pass. They recognised that he was old-school and raised in an era that shaped his thoughts and perspectives.
One sore point was the issue of race. He was suspicious about those who believed his white skin provided him with privilege. In his eyes, he had worked as hard and as honestly as any black Barbadian.
Despite his wealth and success in business, Sir Charles was not ostentatious. He was not one to flaunt the trappings of his achievement in the faces of others. And he had little time for pretence and showiness. He was a self-made millionaire, and he was unashamed of it.
When he felt other Barbadians had honoured this country with their contributions on the global scene such as in sports, he was often the first in line to offer what he had most, which was land. We well recall his generous donations to Barbados’ Olympic bronze medallist Obadele Thompson or world champion hurdler Ryan Brathwaite.
Forthright and fearless, Sir Charles was also not one to remain quiet about any issue of public debate. He was known to call into radio-talk shows to air his feeling on the latest topical issue.
He was unafraid to make his views known on controversial matters such as race relations, crime and violence, and of course political and economic developments. He called for harsher penalties for crop and animal thieves. He blasted the judicial system for the light sentences such offenders received.
We at Barbados TODAY had the honour of conducting one of the last interviews Sir Charles did with any local media. At a function last December, to celebrate his official retirement as head of the C.O. Williams Construction Group, he offered some brief comments.
Surrounded by friends, family, employees, investment partners and large and imposing construction equipment, Sir Charles was in his element. Wearing what may be his signature salmon-coloured pants and white cotton shirt, Sir Charles was back slapping, hugging, and telling stories of his life.
A polo player and beef steak lover, he was described by colleagues as the man who was always the first in the office each morning, much to the chagrin of his younger employees and managers.
When he was asked by this newspaper about his “retirement” he made it clear: “You all got this thing wrong. I’m only retiring from the office.”
In as much as Sir Charles was a millionaire, he worked like a man who was now starting out in business and displayed an ethos that is worthy of emulation.
A man who loved the land, he was reputed to be the largest private landowner in Barbados. He loved beef and dairy cows, and at one time was the island’s largest producer of fresh milk. He was also a black belly sheep farmer, and his company is a major player in the local cut flower industry.
The writer made an important statement about this now fallen local icon in that retirement article. “A risk taker, many of his investments have flourished but some also went bust. But his determination and self-belief have propelled him to many accomplishments, dismissing the failures as part of life’s journey.”
At that event, C.O. Williams’ general manager Neil Weeks added: “Barbados had leaders like Errol Walton Barrow and Tom Adams who recognised that in a post-independence Barbados, the way that we were going to move the country forward was to build out its seaports, airport and its road network. And Sir Charles was right there letting them know in no uncertain terms that . . . Barbadians could do that work for themselves.”
Rest well Sir Charles. You have done Barbados proud.