Hundreds of Vincentians, other Caribbean nationals and Americans on Saturday braved the rainy, dreary weather to bid their final farewell to Vaughan Toney, a Vincentian-born community advocate, childcare chief executive officer (CEO) and St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Ambassador-at-Large, who died on Labor Day Monday, Sept. 4. He was 68.
Toney — the long-standing president and CEO of the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Centers (FOCH), with operations primarily in Brooklyn, as well as in Manhattan and Staten Island — succumbed to cancer, according to Hugh Hamilton, the Guyanese-born director of communications & program development at FOCH, “following a fiercely fought battle.”
Over 1,500 mourners jammed the pews of The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, a sprawling Episcopal (Anglican) church on Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, for the 1 ½-hour-long service, which began at 10:12 a.m. and celebrated Toney’s life.
The church’s rector, the Rev. Andrew Durbidge, presided over the entire service, which was graced by the presence of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves, who earlier on Saturday had addressed the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly Debate.
Former St. Vincent and the Grenadines Health and Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Douglas Slater, Ambassador to the United Nations I. Rhonda King and United States Consul General Rondy “Luta” McIntosh were among dignitaries at the service.
In his tribute, Prime Minister Gonsalves, who had conferred the new title of Ambassador-at-Large on Toney, exactly one year ago on Saturday, described Toney as “a titan of our Vincentian civilization, a man of deep conviction, a man who was polite to the core.
“He had no malice in him,” he said. “Goodness was at the center. He was extremely generous with his time and whatever little resources he had. He was selfless.
“We know all the details in his political activism,” the Vincentian leader added. “Even week before he died, when I visited him, with the permission of Bridget [his wife], he was full of optimism. He had in him a full sense of his personal redemption.
“He was a splendid family man,” Dr. Gonsalves continued. “He didn’t worry about trivial things. He was concerned about who he can help to make this world a better place.
“I will miss him,” the prime minister said. “He was my dear friend, my comrade, my patriot. Farewell brother, my comrade. On behalf of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines; on behalf of my family, including the Labor Family [Unity Labor Party – laughter], may he rest in peace and the light perpetual shine upon him.”
In his eulogy, Hamilton said, while Toney was to his surviving family a husband, a father and a son, he was to him “a brother and a friend”, and to countless others “a colleague and a confidante, a mentor, a counselor, a guide.
“He was a visionary who dared to dream, and dreamed to change the world; a patriot and a philanthropist – uncompromisingly devoted to his people,” Hamilton said. “He was a boy from Calliaqua [the southernmost town on mainland St. Vincent], who grew up to be a citizen of the world – an Ambassador-at-Large in every meaning of the stately title he bore so elegantly with pride and dignity. He was a man for all seasons.”
Hamilton said he first met Toney when they were both newly recruited to the staff of then New York City Council Member, Jamaican Dr. Una S.T. Clarke, the first Caribbean-born woman to be elected to New York City Council, some 30 years ago.
“Vaughan was chief-of-staff, which means he was technically my boss,” he said. “As young men at the time, we circled each other somewhat cautiously at first, but soon developed a mutually respectful professional relationship that evolved over time to become a close and lifelong bond of brotherhood. So much so that, when he first asked me, 10 years ago, to deliver the eulogy at his funeral if he should predecease me, saying ‘no’ was never an option.”
Hamilton said Toney was “a man of faith”, who “lived his life with a sense of purpose.”
He also said Toney was “a man of hope,” who was “relentlessly optimistic and earnestly believed that ‘no’ was never the right answer if you wanted something badly enough.”
In addition, Hamilton described Toney was “a man of charity, which, in Christian thought, signifies the highest form of love, and is the foundation of all other virtues.
“And this charity, this commitment to selfless service for the love of others, has been the defining ethic of Vaughan’s entire life,” he said, adding that “there came a time in his battle when Vaughan knew the end was imminent, and he faced his final curtain with a remarkable combination of courage, dignity and even a touch of unexpectedly sardonic humor.”
Hamilton disclosed that a few weeks before Toney’s demise, he visited him, “when, out of the blue, he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Brother Hugh, I am ready for whatever comes next [mourners sighed]. And when the time comes, please remember that a eulogy is not a State of the Union Address [laughter]. So, there’re no need to go on and on.’
“And so, on behalf of all of us here gathered, I close by expressing to his mother Ela, his wife Bridget, his children, grandchildren and entire family our heartfelt sorrow and sympathy for your loss,” Hamilton continued. “There are no words sufficient to assuage the grief of his loved ones who today must bear the burden and the pain of his untimely passing.
“In our moment of sorrow, we also owe it to the memory of our departed brother, Vaughan, to celebrate the life he lived, and to embrace the many moments and examples of love and kindness and happiness he shared with us,” he said. Vaughan Peter Adrian Toney lives on in the hearts and minds of all who knew and loved him. And we pray that, with the passing of time, his memory will endure as a living inspiration to all of us who strive to be of good courage, holding fast to that which is good, and making a positive difference in the lives of others.”
In his homily, Fr. Durbidge noted that Toney “came from humble roots” and that he “didn’t want to die.”
“He had things to resolve,” he preached. “However, there’s a time to die.
“We all have to work with love and forgiveness, and to set right relationships,” Fr. Durbidge added. “Whatever love…, don’t leave it for another day. No matter if you’re a religious person or not, think of how your children may offer different meaning in their lives.
“I encourage you to reflect on your own lives and what you hope people will remember you at your own funeral,” he continued.
Hamilton said, in 2001, Toney narrowly lost an historic election bid to represent the 45th District in the New York City Council.
For the past 22 years, however, he served as president and chief executive officer of FOCH, a New York State-registered 501(c)3 not-for-profit, community-based organization in the City of New York.
“During that tenure, he presided over the largest expansion and diversification of the agency’s portfolio in its 46-year history,” Hamilton said.
With a current network of 21 full-service Early Childhood Education Centers in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island, he said FOCH has evolved under Toney’s leadership to become “the largest city-contracted, not-for-profit provider of subsidized child care and early education in the City of New York.”
In addition to its signature, center-based Infant/Toddler, 3K and Pre-K programs, the agency also operates an extensive Family Child Care Network, serving hundreds of preschool children in dozens of affiliated provider homes in Brooklyn and Queens, Hamilton said.
Through separate contracts with the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), he said FOCH also administers multiple Elementary and Middle School Afterschool programs.
Additionally, FOCH is a state-contracted sponsoring agency of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) — a nutrition education and meal reimbursement program, enabling providers to serve nutritious and safely prepared meals and snacks to children in licensed child-care settings.
Lawyer Narissa Morris, chair of FOCH’s Board of Directors, told Caribbean Life on Monday that Darryl Davis, an African American native New Yorker, FOCH’s executive director, has been serving as interim CEO until Toney’s successor is named.
Besides his mother Ela and wife Bridget, Toney is survived by children Cherice, Tiffany and Adam; grandchildren Malachi, Tia, Liam, King and Tori; brothers Alan and Patrick; sisters Lucia, Bridget, Lafleur and Rhanda; uncles Hilton, Alwyn, Joel, Ulpian and Sydney; aunts Barbara, Grace and Lois; and many other relatives and friends.
The committal of Toney’s body takes place, at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Calliaqua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on Oct. 7.