Behind the wheel for a premier
The premier and his chauffeur
Writer Burton K. Janes brings us the story of the man who chauffeured the late premier Joey Smallwood. Sixty-three-year-old Nelson Oates recalls some of the adventures he had with this province’s first, and arguably most colourful, premier.
The 63-year-old man gets up from his chair and walks over to a large framed painting hanging on his office wall. Joey Smallwood, this province’s first and longest-serving premier, is sitting in the foreground against a backdrop of Confederation Building.
The man silently stares at the scene before him. A minute passes. His eyes are awash in tears.
“I drove the hearse right from Roaches Line to the graveyard in St. John’s,” he manages to say. He chokes up. Then: “It was all over. This was it.”
He’s calling to mind the nine years he worked as Smallwood’s personal chauffeur — 1968-77.
Pulling himself away from the portrait, he sits down and regains his composure.
In the late 1960s, when Smallwood began experiencing eye trouble, he wanted a driver. He called his nephew, Nelson Oates, in Bay Roberts. Smallwood was married to Nelson’s aunt, Clara Oates, of Carbonear.
“Nelson, here’s a job for you,” Oates remembers Smallwood saying. Oates jumped at the opportunity, and never looked back.
Perhaps Smallwood was still haunted by the memory of a horrific helicopter crash at the family’s Russwood Ranch on Roaches Line in 1957, Oates suggests. “After that, he felt safer in a car than anywhere else.”
Oates’ responsibility was to deliver Smallwood to Confederation Building, “and wherever else he wanted to go,” he adds. He was on call around the clock. He was also a page and messenger in the House of Assembly.
The government vehicle was a black Cadillac. “I think I wore out two or three Cadillacs,” Oates says. “Then we went to Chrysler Imperial.”
When Smallwood himself drove, he strapped to his right leg a pad and made notes along the way. With Oates in the driver’s seat, Smallwood sat in front, often reclining his seat and napping. Now, his notepad was strapped to his left leg, and he made frequent use of a radio phone.
Oates built a carpet-encased stool so his uncle could rest his short legs. “ The stool brought his legs up and he was able to make notes without reaching or bending,” he explains.
An early riser, Smallwood was ready to leave by 7:45 a.m. “If I wasn’t there, he’d go without me, and I’d catch up with him later.”
The discussion between the duo ranged from the mundane to the serious.
Smallwood asked many questions. Sometimes he wanted to know Oates’ whereabouts the night before. A favourite topic was politics. At other times, they discussed vehicles they encountered on the road.
One day, a Roadmaster Buick overtook the premier’s Chrysler Imperial. The driver, unaware of the passenger’s identity, rolled down his window and challenged Oates to drag race him.
“ Nelson,” Smallwood said, “ if he wants to drag, then let’s drag.”
“ That car could move,” Oates recalls. “It had a dual exhaust system and a 440 engine. I kicked that thing in. I never saw him after.”
Why would the premier encourage his chauffeur to drag? “I guess he figured there could an accident,” Oates reasons. Out-driving him might be safer than actually racing him.
Some trips were more memorable than others.
Like the time they were returning from a meeting in Bonavista. Despite a raging snowstorm, Smallwood was determined to get back to Roaches Line. This time, he and CJON personality John Nolan were in the back seat.
Rounding a turn, Oates saw ice on the road. The terrified passengers got on the floor and waited for the worst.
A rear tire struck a culvert and the back of the vehicle went into a ditch. They spun around the road a few times. “ I gave her a shot of gas and she popped back on the road,” Oates said with obvious pride.
The chauffeur rarely stayed in the car after the premier climbed out and went about his business. They ate and campaigned and attended meetings together. “ Sometimes I was with him day and night,” Oates says.
Smallwood had a keen memory for place names. “He could remember the names of all the little places coming up,” Oates adds. “He’d try to make me remember them, but I couldn’t do it like he could.”
Oates has no complaints with his job. “ I loved every day,” he enthuses. “ I don’t think I ever missed a day.”
He especially liked what he calls “ the political end of it. You’d be going to political meetings all over Newfoundland. Almost anywhere you could get with a car, we were there.”
Smallwood had a strong liking for Bristol Cream wine.
“ He’d probably have a glass or two a day,” Oates reveals. “Occasionally, he’d say, ‘God, I’d like to have a glass of wine.’ “ His chauffeur, at his beck and call, would pour him some wine in a plastic cup. “It was a little bit of relaxation for him.”
Early on, Oates learned some of Smallwood’s traits.
“ I think Mr. Smallwood was a religious man,” he states. But he wasn’t bigoted. One religion or denomination was as good as the next.
“ I practically lived with him on Portugal Cove Road, when he was out of Confederation Building, working on his books,” Oates says. Passing Smallwood’s bedroom door, he occasionally saw him kneeling in prayer.
The premier had a heart as soft as a baby’s, Oates maintains, especially when a friend or family member died.
“Anybody’d think Joey, the son of a gun, was hardhearted, but no way. I actually saw him shed tears,” Oates admits.
A shrewd politician? Without a doubt. But Smallwood was also genuine, Oates indicates.
Once Smallwood left politics for good, Oates assisted him by selling hundreds of the final three volumes of his Book of Newfoundland.
“ I guess I wanted to prove to Mr. Smallwood I could sell books,” Oates says.
Oates continued working at the Confederation Building for less than a year, chauffeuring ministers. “ But I wanted to be with Mr. Smallwood,” he says.
Evidently, they were part of a mutual admiration society. Oates thought a lot about his uncle, and vice versa. “I was company for him,” he says.
The official part of his work ended when Smallwood retired from public life in 1972.
“ That was a sad day for me, knowing it was my last day,” Oates states, “and dropping off the Cadillac Imperial for Frank Moores to pick up the next day.”
Joey died on Dec. 17, 1991. At Smallwood’s request, Oates drove the hearse to Mount Pleasant Cemetery in St. John’s, carrying the body of the last living father of Confederation.
Chauffeuring Smallwood was a good, nineyear ride for Oates; a career highlight. All that remains are the memories and the original painting Smallwood on the wall.
“ Uncle Joe” — an appellation Oates used only when nobody was near — “ was my buddy,” said Oates.