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.

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