Remembering Nora – A tribute to Leonora Sneek-Gibbs by Alida Francis, Government Commissioner Funeral Service

There’s a frightening mystery about the finality of death that evokes the most heart wrenching sadness within us.

The fact that we’ll never again get to share a good laugh, an intimate moment, a nice, juicy story, a sumptuous meal, our achievements or disappointments with this person we love so much, brings us an incredible sense of loss.

It’s what so many of us are feeling today as we gather here to bid a final farewell to Leonora Sneek-Gibbs, whom we affectionately called Nora: sorrow, despair, mournfulness; a grievous sense of loss.

But as Glenn Ringtved, the Danish writer, asked: “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”

And, though we feel right now that we are at the darkest of night, losing Nora has taught us – or in many cases helped us recall – her true worth.

Because death is a such great revealer of what is in a person, we are able today to fully appreciate the footprints Nora has left in our hearts and the imprints she has left all over Statia.

Nora was both a pioneer and a giant; her achievements as a public servant are unparalleled; her place in Statia’s history is unquestionable; her seat among the great women such as Christine Flanders, Miriam Schmidt and Laura Rouse, is undeniable. And her mark as a committed volunteer is indelible.

She shattered the glass ceiling in 1991 when she became the first female elected to the Island Council, also going on to serve as Commissioner and State Secretary of Constitutional Affairs.

She was also the first Statian woman to open her own hotel and to start her own political party. And though her political career was relatively short, Nora proved that she did not need to hold political office to faithfully serve her country and lift her people. And she did it with grace, with pride, with dignity. Always with this infectious smile that melted the heart.

Nora found and lived her purpose, which was to serve people, in ways the best among us found difficult to understand and impossible to emulate. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that she chose human resources management as a career.

After her short stint as State Secretary of Constitutional Affairs, Nora expanded her business to include representing the Central Mortgage Bank (CHB). The timing was ideal as many of the commercial banks simply did not display confidence in Statians who so desperately wanted to have their own home.

She began her career as a public servant upon her return to Statia in 1987. And after retiring from government and active politics, she took up a brief career as head of the Human Resources Manager at NUSTAR (Statia Terminals). There she made an enormous impact ensuring that there were training and retraining programmes that encouraged Statians to embrace management positions they had shied away from in the past. Workers with the islands largest employer received one of the highest salary increases ever to date.

This is but one example of an extraordinarily visionary woman who served Statians wherever she was, and wherever they were. Be it in Statia, the Netherlands, or Aruba, she was there for us; ALL of us.

It was in Aruba in 1979 that I first met Nora. I was just 13 years old, and I was there to attend secondary school. Together with Mr. George van Putten – now deceased, she was responsible for the care of Statian students. She saw to it that we had a place to stay, communicated with the schools on each child's progress, held all sort of events where students could come together to have a good time and display their talents.

As Paul said in the book of Romans, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Nora used her gift of giving generously, with zeal and with cheerfulness. 

We connected again in 1992. She was Commissioner of Education and Tourism. It was mere months after she’d formed the St. Eustatius Tourism Development Foundation in February 1992.

Committed to promoting Statia on the world stage, she encouraged me to apply for the post of Tourism Director.

I was fortunate to secure the position and become the island’s first Director of Tourism, managing a European Union Development Fund project that included funds to professionalize the Tourism Office, and train its staff and workers in the tourism and hospitality sector.

Nora and I travelled the Caribbean and the world together promoting Statia. Funds were limited at the time, so we often shared a room where we spent countless nights talking about Statia and plans to further develop the island, mainly the tourism and hospitality sector.

Statia was the smallest among the 34 member countries of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, but certainly not the least. She fought to ensure that St. Eustatius benefitted from the services offered by the CTO to its member states, Training, Marketing, Statistics, Product Development. Nora believed that tourism would be the sector to help diversify the two-pillar economy and create more possibilities, mainly employment opportunities for Statian residents.

Forming the Foundation also provided the platform for government and stakeholders to work together on all aspects of tourism marketing, education and training, product enhancement, transportation, airlift, cruise development, data collection, investments.

This is just a summary of her life as a public servant. But there’s so much more that can’t be said here. There’s also her generous giving.

In the book of James, the second chapter, the writer asks:

“What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Nora backed up her faith with lots of excellent work.

She was a woman who did not discriminate, serving everyone, every time; a woman who worked until the very end.

A woman who, by her work, demonstrated her faith in our children, in our country, in our future.

In good times and hard times, through dry spells and through storms, in days of plenty and days of famine she gave of herself – Charitably. Compassionately. Generously.

Again and again, she taught us through all that she did, the causes that she adopted, the people she supported, that it’s true that faith without work IS dead.

While she did not have any children of her own, Nora was a mother, godmother, aunt, big sister, mentor and cheerleader to many.

She fell asleep in the late hours of the night, doing what she had done for many years, working tirelessly to assist those who called on her.

It’s said that life is like a notebook where two pages are already written by God. The first page is birth, and the last page is death. All the pages in between are where life happens and it’s up to each of us to fill these pages.

These past two weeks, as everyone who has had contact with Nora have shared their experiences with her, we can all agree that she certainly filled those centre pages of her life brilliantly.

She filled them with inspiring and uplifting words; she filled them stirring and stimulating paragraphs; she filled them with moving and memorable chapters.

The story of Nora’s life is one of the greatest stories that can ever be told here in Statia; it’s an absolute bestseller.

Looking back, she was one woman who had an enormous impact on Statia.

Nora embraced the importance of now. She refused to allow the lull of comfort, the paralysis of fear, the complacency of familiarity, or the fragility of ego to stop her from acting on her ambitions. She never allowed the noise and distraction to get in the way of her doing, her giving, her serving.

She is leaving this world with her best work already done, and, as Buddha said, neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase her good deeds.

I encourage us all to be like Nora: die empty, give your all, give it freely, give it wholeheartedly. Do not go to your grave with your best work inside of you because eventually all of your tomorrows will be gone. It’s how you choose to spend your time today that’s significant.

Like Nora, it’s by your fruits we shall know you, and by your deeds we shall remember you.

On behalf of the Public Entity St. Eustatius, I express profound condolences to her beloved husband, Councilman Koos Sneek, their children, her godchildren, her siblings, nieces, nephews, extended family, friends, Lions family at home and globally and all those with whom she worked with on many charitable causes.

Rest peacefully Nora. Your legacy will live on in our hearts forever.