Ainsworth was also known as A. S. Johnson, Sonny, J, and called Billy G. by some of his more ancient buddies.
Those of you who missed the Oral Roberts and Billy Graham era may not fully appreciate how J got the handle “Billy G” but you certainly know that when J prefaced a comment with “Bass” you were in for an impassioned, informed and compelling lecture on anything from cricket to local current affairs, best practice in construction or business or politics. Bass!
Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator and author wrote that “the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living”. So “death, an inevitable end will come when it must” but the life of a sojourner such as Ainsworth ‘Sonny’ Johnson lives on; his life’s work, his principles and the monuments he constructed will outlast us all.
Ainsworth was born at Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica on January 4th 1941. He was the first of two children born by Ms. Gladys Garbutt. Growing up in Ja. in the height of wartime, restrictions were not a walk in the park. His sister Fiona Elaine has fond memories of how big brother Sonny was her mentor and protector. Elaine has often spoken of the special bond they had, a bond that has remained throughout their lives. She recalls that J was protective and always looking out for her best interests. He was loving, kind and would give away his heart if you let him. She remembers him as being friendly and talkative. But J’s infancy gave little indication of the powerful individual he was to become. Information suggests that J did not talk until he was aged 4 and in the tradition of the time in Jamaica, his hair remained in bouncy ringlets up to that age. Could his later verbosity be some sort of catching up for early childhood reticence?
Ms. Gladys moved back to Belize with her children in 1953/54 and took up residence on land she had inherited from the Westby side of her family. Ainsworth completed his Primary School education in Placencia and after leaving school, in typical Jamaican entrepreneurial spirit, he started a business in the village, an ice cream business. Sonny also tried his hand at fishing but quickly realised it was not for him. Fast forward five years and Grandpa John Garbutt hooked him up with a carpenter’s job at the Public Works Department in Belize City. There he met Sammy King and Lennox Robateau, heralding in friendships and collaboration that lasted forever. Sonny J was young, energetic, acquisitive and eager to learn. He quickly moved up from apprentice and within a few short years was entrusted with tasks that only the most senior craftsmen were allowed to do. One such big job that he and Sammy got to do was working on the restoration of the Belize City Hospital after destructive Hurricane Hattie.
George Sand, a female French novelist believed that “there is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved”. Ainsworth loved (adored) his mother and his sister and after he starting to work on restoring the hospital he met and fell in love with Nurse Shirley Jones. Fairy book stuff: boy sees girl; boy literally falls head over heels to get girl’s attention; girl plays the dignified professional nurse role but eventually they marry and bear one precocious daughter and they all lived happily ever after. When Sonny and Sammy get together in the hereafter, Sammy may remind Sonny about how he had faked an injury to justify seeking treatment from the attractive Nurse Jones at the Belize City Hospital’s Emergency Ward. I’m not sure they’re going to agree on Sammy’s version of events but that’s the only version I have and noone is around to dispute it at present. Guess we will have to wait to find out when we all get to heaven.
J and Shirley tied the knot of matrimony on December 27th 1967. Their marriage was solemnised by Bishop Sylvester at St. John’s Cathedral. J and Shirley presented a fiercely independent-minded family team. In the days when weddings were grand family organised affairs, they rejected family financing and instead saved up to bring off the wedding just the way they planned. Independent, logic oriented, faithful to family and friends, J held that if a job is to be done, it must be done well and done to completion.
Ainsworth knew that he had very few people he could truly depend on and that therefore, he had to blaze his own path in life. Bradley Whitford captured what characterised the mantra of Ainsworth’s life:
“Infuse your life with action. Don’t wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. Make your own hope. Make your own love. And whatever your belief, honour your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high but by doing what you can to make grace happen…yourself, right now, right down here on earth.”
Lisa considers her father second to none. He was always there for her instilling confidence, self sufficiency, a sense of personal responsibility and above all, loyalty to others. Daddy taught her to appreciate history and to follow logic. And from him (I think from both parents) Lisa learned to always stand her ground.
“In the bivouac of Life
Be not like dumb trodden cattle
Be a hero in the strife!”
Daddy loved to read. Lisa says he was particularly fond of political biographies which often shaped the tenure of his conversations. It is therefore no accident that Ainsworth held strong views of the direction and the efficacy of political leadership generally but more specifically within Belize. He opposed the Webster Proposals, stood firm that not one blade of grass…not one square centimetre should be surrendered to the neighbouring bully and he distrusted those in leadership, who seemed to hold dissimilar views. A man of conviction and action he was a UDP when it was not fashionable. Henry Young recalls that Sonny was prominent in the construction of the UDP Headquarters. He provided logistical and technical support and assisted; however, he could freely and willingly. Throughout his active lifetime Ainsworth contributed his time and his resources to the cause of the United Democratic Party and his name must be recorded among those who have helped to transform the political discourses and landscape of this country.
J was appointed Chairman of the Belize Water Services (BWS) during the first UDP tenure in office – 1984 to 1989. That that entity for the first time in its existence as a statutory body did not operate in the red must be credited to Ainsworth’s integrity, business acumen and practical approach to management. One recalls that during his tenure as chairman an Embassy for a large superpower had water services disconnected for racking up a huge unpaid bill. Rumour has it that when the Prime Minister called Ainsworth to find out why he had cut out the Embassy, Ainsworth’s response went something like “Mr. Prime Minister, with respect, if you don’t pay your water bill I’d be forced to cut you out too.”
He was also appointed as a one man commission to review the Belize Fire Service. An impressive report was submitted, which unfortunately may have gone the way of so many well-documented commissions – nothing seemed to have been actioned based on the report.
When Sonny went to Public Works, he soon came to realise that turning rock stone in the Department was not his goal.So a year after Lisa was born, he quit and took off for the US. Unlike many who had made that trek before, he had a purpose: work, earn enough to buy a set of essential tools so he could launch out in Belize as a building contractor. By 1971, J was back with loads of tools all stocked in the famous red cab truck. A. S. Johnson (Billy Graham) had performed his own miracle! From humble beginnings on Racecourse St,, A. S. Johnson – Building Contractor created a legacy of honesty, dependability, quality building construction. He built to last. ‘Bass, whey I put up noh wah drap down.” He often did not win tenders because as J always maintained and with justification, that when he tendered he tendered to DO the job not to GET the job. What A.S. Johnson has built will be here for many generations to come. Many of us who flirted with cheaper, fast-talking contractors often fell back on J to get critically unfinished jobs completed.
A. S. Johnson will be remembered as a professional builder who delivered satisfaction you could trust. His last significant undertaking, Equity House, stands majestically on Albert St. and proudly houses the law offices of Barrow and Williams.
In the 1980s J turned his attention to developing the family property in Placencia. For decades, Ms. Gladys had run one of the few all-purpose shops that existed in this secluded village. By 1984, Sonny’s Resort replaced the shop. Cabañas adorned the beachfront, two huge trailer homes complemented the rustic setting and Sonny’s Resort became the focal village stop for food, drinks, accommodations and entertainment. It quickly became the favoured Easter hangout of the not-so-rich but famous and of UDP cabinet ministers. It was to Sonny’s credit that during the Easter of 1985, at an informal Cabinet Meeting chaired by Deputy P.M. Curl Thompson around the bar at Sonny’s Resort, that the decision was made to construct the road that a previous administration had misguidedly stopped at Seine Bight Village.
The decision made, there was considerable opposition from expatriate landowner’s through whose properties the road would have to pass. One landowner even fired off a letter to his Congressman up North appealing for him to have the US Government stop the road! But the road to Placencia – all five miles – was built. The village has blossomed. Thousands converge on Placencia every year and hotel bookings for Easter are made years in advance. This was achieved because an un-sung hero, a Jamaican born to Placencia rootstock, said “Bass, the PUP’s built an all-weather road on the peninsula and stopped it at Seine Bight, five miles from Placencia. The road-building equipment is still sitting in that village. Bass, if we noh tek this opportunity and find the money to push the road through, this will be a travesty that voters who have faithfully voted UDP may never forget.” The road from Seine Bight to Placencia should be named Sonny Johnson Highway. (Those in favour…)
I first took notice of Billy G at a cricket match at the MCC Grounds. We would eventually join the Melrose Cricket Club run by Maxwell Bruce and we both contributed our different skills to the team. J was a conventional stroke player at bat and when given the ball to bowl could often pull off hat tricks in getting wickets. His strength on the team could often be heard as much as felt! J’s red truck ferried us to many a match in Burrell Boom, Bermudian Landing and beyond and he, along with Laggie Eiley would have been instrumental in getting Melrose to Placencia on a couple of memorable occasions. Horace ‘Sandy’ Young has a vivid recollection of returning from Placencia in a sailing lighter that met strong head winds off Robinson Point. They spent all night teking back and forth but could not land in Belize City for agonising hours.
J could be playful and had a good sense of humour. He was well-liked and in turn liked pleasing those he loved. Many of us remember the tasteful lobster, conch and rice and beans and steaks J would prepare. But beneath all his joviality was a person who disliked mediocrity and spinelessness. He could not stand for people who refused to think for themselves, who did not take responsibility for their own actions; disloyalty to him was a venal sin.
Ainsworth was pre-deceased by his mother Gladys Garbutt, father Reginald Johnson and his uncle Leonard Garbutt. He is survived by his daughter Dr. Lisa Johnson and her family, sister Mrs. Fiona Elaine Stephenson, brother-in-law Haldane Wallace Stephenson, son Haldane ‘Presho’ Stephenson, nieces Francine and Priscilla and nephew Aubrey Wade Jr.
“For Life and Death are one, even as the river and the sea are one” Khalil Gibran. And from Holy Scripture:“I am the resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have Life, even though he die. And everyone who has Life and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.” So let it be with Ainsworth. Like the river never ceasing its flow into the sea Ainsworth’s works and memory will live on for generations.
Until we meet my friend, rest in peace.