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Earlier this month, the travel world was rocked by the death of Gordon “Butch” Stewart at the age of 79. To the travel community, he was famous as the innovative founder and chairman of Sandals Resorts International, as well as a vibrant personality within the industry.
In fact, despite his many years of success, those who knew him could still catch glimpses of who he once was: A Jamaican kid who, at the age of 13, bought a fishing boat for two shillings and then sold his catch to hotels in Ocho Rios.
“Mr. Stewart was a visionary, an innovator,” said Dian Harrison Holland, business development manager for the Western U.S. at the Jamaica Tourist Board. “His contributions to tourism were enormous and immeasurable. He was a person who was highly respected and will be sorely missed.”
Mr. Stewart was a visionary, an innovator. His contributions to tourism were enormous and immeasurable.
Sportfishing was a passion of Butch’s, and I was delighted and surprised when he invited me and my then fiance, Sofia, to join his team for the 47th Port Antonio International Marlin Tournament in Jamaica back in 2010. While we’d interacted at various press dinners and travel trade functions, this would be completely different — going after prize-winning marlin off the coastline of Port Antonio, my favorite destination in Jamaica.
Sofia and I arrived in Port Antonio on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, fortified by the Jamaican patties we’d bought on the drive from Ocho Rios. The next morning, the sportfishing team — which comprised Butch’s childhood friends and two journalists from the U.K. — piled into vehicles and took off for the marina. Waiting for us was Butch’s beautifully appointed 90-foot fishing craft, Sir John II. Onboard, we discovered a personal touch; inside the main cabin were framed photos of Butch’s kids.
The highlight of the tournament was when Butch hooked and landed a 285-pound Atlantic blue marlin, which put up a 45-minute fight before Butch finally reeled it to the side of the boat. The marlin was then measured, photographed and tagged before being released.
Over the course of the fishing tournament, it was interesting to see Butch in action. By 7 a.m., he was already on his 10th international business call, working the phone, sculpting deals and handing out blistering assessments of those who fell short in his eyes. As he talked, he’d turn the pages of the daily newspaper. It was only later that I put two and two together and realized he was checking out the morning edition of the Jamaica Observer, the newspaper he owned.
Onboard the John II, I saw a living example of a man at the top of his game. This was evident in the drive Butch displayed in his business and as a fisherman. It even showed when he played dominoes with his childhood friends. There was a lot of easy banter and camaraderie as the dominos slapped the table — but the players were in it to win.
I can’t wait to get up in the mornings. I live a life of laughter, with a lot of friends and colleagues.
The sportfishing team had a cocktail party the night before our departure. During the party, Butch took me aside and said, “I want to give you and Sofia a honeymoon at Sandals Grande Antigua. It’s on me.”
This was the kind of man Butch was. This wasn’t a matter of quid pro quo; there was very little I could do for him in return. It was an act of big-hearted generosity on his part.
During a 2012 interview for the Financial Times, Butch was asked if he wanted to carry on until he dropped.
He answered, “I do. I can’t wait to get up in the mornings. I live a life of laughter, with a lot of friends and colleagues. I work with the most fabulous people. We make one plan after another and execute them.”
Mark Rogers' award-winning travel journalism has brought him to 56 countries. His crime novels have been published by Brash Books in the U.S. and Lume Books in the U.K. His book-length memoir of life in Mexico, “Uppercut,” was published in 2020 by Cowboy Jamboree Press.
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