Songbirds and Pioneers
The Ottleys of Trinidad
By Lael Caesar
Neville Ethelbert Ottley met the love of his life at a children’s choir concert in Port of Spain, on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. He was 11 years old. So was she, and a featured soloist. She was Seventh-day Adventist, and he Anglican. She was close to her Belmont home, while he was far from his home in San Fernando, the island’s southern capital.
Far From Home
But Neville was glad to be far from home. It was not because of Myra. He had never met the 11-year-old songster. Rather, it was because home often felt like a rather unkindly place to be. His mom was dead. His dad was too. Even his grandparents were dead. Mrs. Smith, whom everybody called “Miss Pooney,” took care of him. But some of her family did not care for him. They beat him constantly. So poor, orphan Neville was glad to escape from home. A Mr. Williams, Mrs. Smith’s friend, helped him escape. Mr. Williams was a Seventh-day Adventist. He took the boy to Sabbath school. He did not know that he was nurturing a future mechanical engineer, Pathfinder leader, conference departmental director, and college administrator. He was just helping a little orphan boy. And that was how, at the age of 11, Neville heard Myra sing.
Close to two decades later Neville and Myra would form their own musical duo as God’s love and truth united their hearts and lives. Their union would bless the Seventh-day Adventist church in Trinidad and far beyond with 66 years of many good things shared with the world either through their separate kindnesses or through their work as a team. Neville would contribute his superior carpentry and adroit business management. Myra, who came to be known as a quiet commander, taught preschool and kindergarten through the week and on Sabbath as well, and ran her own day-care center. The team would be known for good gardening, strong discipline, sweet music—whether as a duet or with their four children, Nevilla, Geraldine, Myron, and Ruby—and authentic godliness. Many of Adventism’s later Caribbean leaders know they owe a debt of gratitude to Neville and Myra for the influence of these two workers for God on their lives at Caribbean Union College (CUC), now the University of the Southern Caribbean (USC).
The circumstances of that union make for astonishing narrative. Neville had decided to pray about the future of his relationship with a certain young woman. With eyes closed, he opened a Bible and put his finger on a text. Then he opened his eyes. As Neville later remembered it, the words his finger identified spoke of not being “the one to build a house” (perhaps 1 Chron. 17:4). He understood that to mean that he would not raise a family if he married his current companion. Guided by his answer, Neville broke off the relationship. He found someone else: Myra. They started dating in their late 20s. Myra knew that Neville had many friends. She did too. When she asked him why he chose her above the others, he was ready with a thoroughly spiritual answer: “The Bible directed me.” They were married in 1943, and reared four beautiful children who continue, and have greatly expanded, their missionary witness and music ministry to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Amazingly enough for some, though not for the conscientious Neville, his previous companion did marry, but never had any children of her own. God does lead in mysterious ways after all.
Serving in Trinidad
It was only after seven invitations that Neville and Myra agreed to leave their California home in December 1959, to return to the place where they would make their greatest impact on the development of Adventism in their native land of Trinidad and Tobago. They had come to California after studying at Emmanuel Missionary College (EMC), now Andrews University, from 1945 to 1951. Neville had made other contributions too, while studying at EMC. He had helped Uncle Dan pilot the now-world-famous Your Story Hour children’s radio show. His skills as a carpenter also landed him student employment at the college woodwork shop. His first job as a teenager in Trinidad had been at a sawmill. A single month’s training there had qualified him to make a money box in the shape of a book. Motivated as well as skillful, he studied carpentry at the Royal Institute. At EMC they quickly recognized his skill and moved him from student labor to full, professional employment.
Once back at CUC, Neville first served as a math teacher. Decades later students remember how he brought math to life in a new way, making something understandable that was otherwise a mystery. Neville also had to make math understandable when he later served as the college’s business manager. In those days CUC had but two administrators, a president and a business manager. As business manager Neville was the person who determined how satisfactory any prospective student’s financial plans might be. His lyric tenor voice sounded a strong contrast to the firmness of his financial management. This industrious man, who built every piece of furniture for his home when he and Myra married, aimed not only to manage the college properly but to teach his students the importance of financial responsibility. Though he himself was a financial administrator, or, one might say, because he was a different kind of money manager, he never understood why banks were willing to give loans to people with outstanding bills.
Nevertheless, Neville is not remembered as lacking in compassion. A host of “adopted” children remember him just as his own children and grandchildren do, as a strict yet loving father. He was dad to dozens more than those born to him and Myra. Throughout the decades they knew that they could depend on him for assistance in a great variety of matters, from finances and child rearing to making repairs on their houses or helping them buy the right one. As Myra put it, what Neville never got in his own childhood home, he was happy to give to the next generation.
Official duties in teaching and administration are only part of the strong Ottley legacy to Trinidadian and Caribbean Adventism. Perhaps because it did not involve saying no to hopeful but impoverished student applicants, Neville is as preciously remembered for the evening worships he conducted on campus, memorialized in the pages of the college’s yearbook, Valley Echoes, 1964. He also did much to improve the physical plant. Later generations have heard of his work as the school’s second administrator. But many at USC still benefit from his selfless genius without ever realizing the debt they owe to him. They do not know that some of the buildings they occupy are the product of his architectural work.
Most of all, though, it was his singing that endeared him to the hearts of audiences across Trinidad and Tobago, and everywhere else that he went. He became a modern bearer of ancient David’s affirming title, “the sweet singer in Israel.” Returning to the United States after he and Myra had completed eight years of fruitful service to the Caribbean, Neville was privileged to enjoy membership in the distinguished National Choral Society under Francisco de Araujo. He also gave solo recitals and delighted many a wedding with his beautiful renditions of “The Wedding Prayer.”
God blessed Neville and Myra with long lives so they could do much good in His name for His people and for His cause. Neville was almost 96 when he passed to his rest. Myra followed him almost two years later, at the age of 97. The sweet music of their lives continues to be heard today through generations of Ottley church leaders, educators, singers, instrumentalists, arrangers, and conductors. The two most conspicuous instruments of Ottley musical impact are the Ottley school of music, directed for three decades now by eldest daughter Nevilla, and the internationally acclaimed Metro Singers, directed by son Myron. Both are based in Hyattsville, Maryland, U.S.A. They are legacies truly worthy of the Ottley name so highly respected and deeply revered by Caribbean Adventists, and many more besides, thanks to the work of Neville and Myra Ottley. We shall sing with them soon, in glory.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of Adventist World.