Today, Soogrim Coolman would have been dressed in battle colours, awaiting the chants from the thousands-strong trade union army to march to their battlefront at Charlie King Junction in Fyzabad.
With lockdown restrictions, however, the hundreds of lives he touched in the trade union movement and the Fyzabad community could not bid him farewell at his funeral last Sunday.
Coolman, the founder of the annual Labour Day Rally, took his final breath on June 9 at age 91. He was a former local government councillor and executive member of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU). The last Butlerite, Coolman always shared the stories of his time spent with the father of the trade union movement, Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler.
In a June 2020 interview with Guardian Media, Coolman said his witnessing of the 1937 labour riots and interactions with Butler inspired him to a life of activism.
Yesterday, it was his daughter Vimala who spoke fondly of his life.
“Daddy still talked about the good old days. For daddy, the good old days were the days with Mr (Doodnath) Maharaj, the late George Weekes, Butler and Mc Leod.
“That life meant a great deal to daddy because he formed bonds of friendships with the entire families,” Vimala said.
As his family reminisced about his life as a servant of the people, his son Hardesh said it was sometimes difficult having to share his father with the country.
Sitting at the desk where his father spent his final years, Hardesh said even on special occasions, Coolman would still leave to help those in need.
While it was hard, he said it taught him about service to people.
He recalled being in Standard Four at the Fyzabad Presbyterian School when he first heard his father tell the story of Charlie King’s death, which differs from other historical accounts.
After all, Coolman was sitting on a potato sack as a child when Cpl Charlie King and other officers arrived to arrest Butler during a meeting in Fyzabad in 1937.
Vimala said his death was a blow to them. Although Coolman was 91, he was still involved in trade unionism and community work.
However, his health quickly deteriorated over the last few months. Last year, Coolman was pained that Labour Day celebrations could not take place.
Even this year, he looked forward to rejoining his comrades in the struggle for workers’ rights.
Vimala recalled her childhood days when Coolman told her the story of feeding Butler his last spoon of water before the chief servant passed away. She said Coolman’s interaction with Butler helped define the man he wanted to be.
“Oh yes! We knew Butler. Butler was a part of our lives growing up. Butler had an impact on daddy that was so great that now, in retrospection, we feel that had a lot of doing with the way he lived his life and the things that he did. Daddy was all about helping people. It did not matter who, daddy would help anyone that came for help in any manner,” Vimala said.
Growing up with a Butlerite meant being ethical, moral and speaking assertively, Vimala said. It was also about giving without seeking returns.
She said her father never retired, as up to earlier this year, people came to him for help with land disputes and child issues and he was happy to serve.
“Daddy was probably the strongest person I knew in life in terms of his mentality. His mentality was that it did not matter what people needed, you could help them.”
A man with a firm belief in education, Coolman introduced the oil quiz to schools in the community. At the OWTU’s 73rd Annual Conference of Delegates in 2012, it bestowed its highest honour, the Labour Star, on Coolman.
His longtime friend Doodnath Maharaj, a former general secretary of the OWTU, said Coolman was a friend, father and advisor and was famous within the Fyzabad community. Maharaj said it was Coolman who brought him into the trade union movement and worked with OWTU president generals John Rojas, George Weekes, Errol McLeod and current leader Ancel Roget. Coolman once served as president of the Fyzabad branch of the union and represented the OWTU at international conferences.