'The Dom' Larger Than Life

Jeff Hacket
Date Published: 
Trinidad Express

When Dom Basil Matthews strode into the Public Library in his flowing white robes for his historic debate on the education concordat with the late Dr Eric Williams, he was followed by his assistant, struggling to keep up with him as he staggered under the weight of a huge pile of books.

The story goes that Dr Williams appeared shortly afterwards, with a scrap of paper in his hand.

Dom Basil, who died last week at the age of 87, always appeared as a larger-than-life figure and fitted the mould of the arrogant, autocratic, brilliant titans of the era of the 1950s and 1960s.

He was a tall, powerfully built, dark-skinned man with an intimidating air and, like Williams, was erudite and rude. But "The Dom", as he was called, was unquestionably a visionary and a doer who founded St Benedict's College in 1956 and built it into a boys' secondary school that swiftly earned a reputation for academic and sporting excellence, with particular reference to football.

By 1960-61, St Benedict's had forcefully announced its presence with stars like Henry Quanvie and Bobby Sookram and, around 1965, the college had assembled, undoubtedly, the best college football team ever.

"The Dom" recruited talented youngsters from the Point Fortin area and imported a Surinamese coach, August Wooter, and later Amerigo Brunner, a Hungarian who played for his country in the 1938 World Cup and was a coach in Brazil.

The St Benedict's team actually benefited from coaching superior to that of the national football team and most of the players - Warren Archibald, Leroy De Leon, Jan Steadman, Steve David - found jobs with teams in the professional football league in the United States in the 1970s.

As an official of the Southern Football League, "The Dom" expounded his vision of what he termed a "super league" for local football and, perhaps, if matters were left up to him, based on what he achieved at his school, standards in the game might have improved appreciably.

He was a Benedictine monk who was educated at Louvain University, Belgium and Fordham University in the US and was awarded a fellowship in the social sciences in the Caribbean. He was assistant professor of Religion at Manhattanville College in 1942 and, while principal of St Benedict's College, spent a year, 1964-1965, acting as a senior lecturer in sociology at UWI.

In early 1968, Dom Basil was forced to resign as principal of St Benedict's amidst unsubstantiated charges of financial impropriety: the conspiracy theorists felt that he was never in the PNM's good books and that he was being undermined by fifth columnists at the school.

It was claimed that he had two choices - leave the Benedictine Order or leave the country.

He left for the US where he taught at a number of universities and returned in the late 1970s when he worked briefly for Mootilal Moonan.

The debate on the concordat, which also involved a debate on Aristotle, at the Public Library with Dr Williams in mid-1955, was said to be "a draw". According to the late De Wilton Rogers in his book The Rise of the People's National Movement, the debate established Williams's intellectual reputation as far as the public was concerned.

Rogers described Dom Basil as "a Catholic divine standing over six feet in his socks, finely chiseled and considered the most learned man of his time".

"The Dom" was an intellectual who wrote a number of books including Crisis in the West Indian Family and Our Cultural Heritage but he had a passion for football and despite his arbitrary, autocratic manner, found time for footballers.

He would book the team to stay at a top Port of Spain hotel for a day or a weekend - something unheard of in that era - as a reward for winning a college game. He built a football ground and spared no expense to have things done right.

Of course, some people, including some members of the school staff, grumbled that too much emphasis was being placed on football rather than on academic education, and the school got the pejorative nickname "the football college".

Sadly, he remained at the school that he founded for less than 12 years and the remarkable contribution he had made to football was never replicated.

When he returned to Trinidad and Tobago, he appeared to be a shadow of the dynamic man of ideas and action.

He eventually settled in the US, succumbing to kidney disease in Aberdeen, Mississippi, on April 7th.

His funeral is tentatively set for tomorrow.