St. John Jamaica’s C.N. Powell: Sixty Years of Service, Teaching – and Saving Lives

” I was always afraid of blood.”

Mr. C.N. Powell leans back in his seat a little, and chuckles. I am sitting at a table with him in the headquarters of St. John Jamaica on Camp Road, while CEO Alison Christie Binger works quietly at her desk on the other side of the room.

The sight of blood is something Mr. Powell soon got used to, after joining the St. John Ambulance Brigade in Jamaica at age 28. However, he was less than enthusiastic, he says, when he was first taken to the St. John headquarters – then at 121 Duke Street in Kingston – for a first aid class in 1955. At the time he was working for the West Indian Review, a leading magazine in the Caribbean, whose editor and owner was journalist Esther Chapman. He was a very fast typist and shorthand writer (anyone remember shorthand?) A few months later, however, he was officially on board at St. John Jamaica.

Sixty years later, at the age of 89, Mr. Clembert Nathaniel Powell continues to serve. Yes, that is what the “C.N.” stands for. He seems a little self-conscious about his old-fashioned name. I think it rolls off the tongue rather nicely.

Mr. Powell will never forget the first time he went on duty with the St. Andrew Division of St. John Jamaica, on January 1, 1956. It was at Knutsford Park, a one-mile horse racing track established in 1904 – the site now of New Kingston’s business centre. Two years after his stint there, the racecourse moved to its present home, Caymanas. “It was the first – and last – time I ever placed a bet,” laughs Mr. Powell. I ask him if he won. Yes, he did – but he was still never tempted to bet on horses again, he says.

Mr. Powell is a man of faith, with clear views on leadership and respect for others. (My photo)
Mr. Powell is a man of faith, with clear views on leadership and respect for others. (My photo)

This seems typical of Mr. Powell’s character: even at a young age, he did the right thing. He is a very upright man – both physically and mentally; he stands up straight. He does not drink or smoke. “I believe in setting an example,” he affirms. “Do as I do, not as I say.” This has been his philosophy of leadership throughout his life and career at St. John. Once you have set yourself as a role model to others, “your confidence flows from there.” He worked in the private sector for ten years, as a Manager at John Crook Limited (1984-94); and also as Managing Director of Metropress Limited and as a Director of Daniels’ Hardware. In 2010, he was International Volunteer of the Year for Kingston.

“You must let people know what you stand for,” Mr. Powell adds. He also advises those in leadership positions to always lead from the front – but to always have kind words, to always show an interest, to continually encourage others and to treat everyone with respect. “Don’t look down on anyone…When you are going up the ladder, always look for the people coming down.”

We go back to Mr. Powell’s childhood. He was born on April 5, 1927 and brought up in Malvern, St. Elizabeth. His mother and his brother were his role models, he says. He moved to Kingston at age 14, and stayed there with his brother – who I sense was a protector, guide and mentor to Mr. Powell in his early years. At age 17 (in 1944) he joined the Army and Air Cadet Force. “It was fun,” he says with a twinkle in his eye: “I still remember my rifle number, G55822.” He still enjoys watching “war shows.” He remembers the powerful Hurricane Charlie in 1951, when he volunteered with the Red Cross. 1957 was the year of the worst train crash in Jamaican history at Kendal; he remembers helping to transport victims to the hospital. And then, at age 31, he got married – “out of my brother’s hands,” as he put it.

1961 was an important year for Mr. Powell. He was promoted to the position of bearer of the St John flag, which he carried at the annual worldwide celebration of St John’s Day (June 24 is St. John the Baptist Day). That was the year in which he also qualified as a trainer in first aid.

Clearly, training was (and remains) “second nature” to Mr. Powell. He takes pride in his teaching abilities – and also in the fact that he has been able to train organizations and individual Jamaicans right across the island, and across the Caribbean. I should have asked him how many people he would estimate he has trained over his six decades of service; it must be many thousands. “We did our training anywhere and everywhere,” he says. “First aid classes in people’s backyards…” He has trained airline crews (“we trained Air Jamaica, right from the start”), ship’s captains, lifeguards, police, athletes, firemen, community groups, prison warders…and the list goes on. In preparation for the Cricket World Cup in Antigua, he went to train military and hotel personnel. When giving a lecture at the University of the West Indies at a symposium on burns and scalds, he did not teach from a book: “It was all in my head.” By the way, Mr. Powell gave lectures for medical students across the campus and trained students in First Aid at the Nursing School for many years.

Seventy-five per cent of the learning process is seeing – committing things to memory through visualization, says Mr. Powell. Twenty per cent is listening to instructions. And the remaining five per cent? That is “feeling, smelling and tasting” – using your senses to learn.

Mr. Powell brought his wonderful medals with him, and we laid them out carefully on the table. The lapel pin on the far right is a recognition award from the Canadian Parliament, which has both the mace of the House of Commons and the Senate with the shield of Canada. Senator Hon. Don Meredith SBStJ, PC made the presentation in acknowledgement of Mr. Powell’s outstanding volunteer service at Denbigh 2014 while Senator Meredith was in Jamaica on a mission. Mr. Powell says the presentation came as complete surprise to him. (My photo)
Mr. Powell brought his wonderful medals with him, and we laid them out carefully on the table. The lapel pin on the far right is a recognition award from the Canadian Parliament, which has both the mace of the House of Commons and the Senate with the shield of Canada. Senator Hon. Don Meredith SBStJ, PC made the presentation in acknowledgement of Mr. Powell’s outstanding volunteer service at Denbigh 2014 while he was in Jamaica on a mission. Mr. Powell says the presentation came as a complete surprise to him. (My photo)

Now, Mr. Powell pursued a parallel career in the Island Special Constabulary Force – ISCF (which merged with the Jamaica Constabulary Force in 2014). Mr. Powell served the ISCF as Commander from 1968- 1973 and as Commandant from 1984 – 1990, when he retired. As a junior officer, he worked in West Kingston in the 1960s during general elections, when violence was brewing: “I was afraid but I could not show it,” he admits.

Mr. Powell is still as active as ever; he still does training. He describes himself as “rehired,” not retired; just “changing course” a little, to use his lovely phrase. He attends the Church of St. John the Evangelist on Mannings Hill Road, where he has taken on many responsibilities over the years. He was Sunday School teacher there for over sixty years. “I love children,” he says, simply. “At Sunday School I always taught: What would Jesus do?” His faith is at the core of his being, and it shines through in his love of life. While he describes teaching as his “second nature,” he avers: “My first nature is duty to God.”

“So many memorable times,” Mr. Powell muses. He recalls his period of training at Newcastle camp as a junior police officer, from 1967-8. One day during weekend training, a newborn baby was found in a latrine in the nearby community. He describes, almost reverently and with enormous pleasure, how he made sure the child was breathing, wrapped it in a blanket, washed it at a standpipe, and then put on his police uniform and transported it in an army lorry down the mountainside to the University Hospital of the West Indies.

Was it a boy or a girl? I ask. “A baby boy. In perfect condition,” he smiles.

Now, since Mr. Powell told me this story, there has been a delightful further development. He was invited as a guest on program Palav on RJR, and told his story to the show’s host Gerry McDaniel. Within five minutes, he said, the producer came in to him, with a name and a number. Soon after, he was talking to the sister of the baby whose life he saved and whom he used to visit at Maxfield Park Children’s Home after the rescue. The power of radio! He went to live with his grandmother in Cascade, Portland; at Buff Bay Elementary School he was called “Latrine Boy.” Well, Latrine Boy is now living in London with his own wife and family, and he is 52 years old. Since the radio program, Mr. Powell met with his sister and gave her a photo of him holding the baby.

What a story. Mr. Powell also recalls the day when, as an ISCF Commander, “someone started singing” during their regular Wednesday afternoon parade. Someone approached him with the idea of a choir, and thus the ISCF Female Choir was formed. It has since merged with the JCF, but their voices are still strong, he says. He remembers the enjoyment of bingo at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre in Kingston, with the well-known caller Donald “Rampus” Hayden. “I taught him,” says Mr. Powell proudly.

I understand, too, that this is more than simply the satisfaction of service. During our conversation, Mr. Powell touches on what he sees as the essence of first aid: that one comes “with naked hands” to help one’s fellow human being, whoever and wherever they are. One may have to improvise, he points out – and as Dale Carnegie said, use the things one finds around you. It’s a kind of Boy Scout philosophy. First aid is “sixty per cent commonsense and forty per cent technical,” he suggests.

He adds, emphatically: “There is nothing more rewarding than saving a life.”

Mr. Powell is a Commander Brother of St. John of Jerusalem. This is the insignia. (My photo)
Mr. Powell is a Commander Brother of St. John of Jerusalem. This is the insignia. (My photo)

Does he worry about his own health? With his strong faith, Mr. Powell believes in the mind-body connection. “I don’t feel my age,” he says. It’s extraordinary, but I don’t see him as “old” either, while I am talking to him. Not at all.

“I take it one day at a time,” adds Mr. Powell. “I look back at my day, and I see what I have contributed. I hardly go to the doctor; I just watch what the body needs.” He does admit to having a heart problem back in 1975 (an angina attack). He refused to take it too seriously. “Next thing, I’d be going to Dovecot [cemetery]!” he joked.

It’s all about taking life calmly, adds Mr. Powell, while keeping busy. “Hate no one, love your enemies, do good to those who spite you. Deal with issues, not personalities. Work hard, and don’t be envious of people,” he advises, adding the Biblical quote: “Let not the sun go down on your wrath.” 

Mr. Powell believes in “going out and getting busy,” in Carnegie’s words. Volunteering, he suggests, “has to come from a want inside.” I sense that this drive, this energy is still in him; he has not stopped working. He has not stopped serving.

“When I do something, I get satisfaction,” Mr. Powell smiles.

“We breathe in, we breathe out… Oxygen, carbon dioxide. We depend on each other.”

There is nothing more rewarding than saving a life.


Pro Fide, Pro Utilitate Hominum: For the Faith, For the Service of Humanity

A note on The Order of St. John: It is the oldest Order of Chivalry in the British Commonwealth. It is a part of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem – a mere nine centuries old.  It has been in Jamaica since 1899, when then Governor of Jamaica Sir Augustine Hemming formed the Association/Teaching Department of the Order, a network of medical professionals who trained the Jamaica Constabulary Force, the Jamaica Militia (now Jamaica Defence Force) and the Kingston Fire Brigade in First Aid. The St. John Ambulance Brigade was formed in 1940. It now has over 300 staff and volunteers across the island, and offers training to all kinds of public and private sector organizations. It also provides first aid coverage at public and private events and has assisted in disaster relief on many occasions – including assistance to Caribbean neighbors, such as Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010. The Governor General is the National President and the Chairman is Earl Jarrett. The National Commander is Hon. Dr. John Hall and Alison Christie Binger is CEO/Executive Director.

Would you like to volunteer at St. John Jamaica? Would you or your organization like to obtain training and international certification in First Aid, CPR or as an Emergency Medical Responder (EMR)? Do you need first aid coverage for your public function, corporate or private event? You may contact St. John Jamaica at 2e Camp Road, Kingston 5. Tel: (876) 926-7656; 455-9207; 784-2423; 754-9599. Email: They are on Facebook (St. John Ambulance Jamaica) and on Twitter @StJohnJamaica.



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