George Blake was an 18-year-old student in Kingston, Jamaica, when he spotted a newspaper ad recruiting volunteers for the Royal Air Force. He knew nothing about battle or airplanes: he’d grown up in the small Jamaican town of Green Island, playing hooky to hang out with friends at the beach and living a simple life with his adoptive parents (neighbours who took care of him after his father died when he was two). But, with a few of his classmates, he signed up. “I hadn’t a clue what being in the Air Force really meant,” he says. “But the next thing I knew, I was in uniform.”
George was shipped to Tampa, Fla., then New York, where he boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth for a voyage to England. The vessel was crammed with American soldiers—including the boxer Joe Louis, who entertained his fellow passengers with stories from the ring—and 30 other Jamaicans. “We were like a bunch of kids that they were giving a ride, like hitchhikers,” George recalls. “All of a sudden, it dawned on us: we’re in for more than we thought.”
When he arrived in England, George took tests that would determine his role in the Air Force. “How would you like to be an air gunner?” an officer asked him during an interview. “You’ll be behind the guns, shooting down all these Germans.” To his relief, George was instead stationed on the home front as a meteorologist in northern Scotland.
When the war ended, George turned down a university scholarship to work as a local government clerk in London. He filled his leisure hours playing rugby, founding a cricket club and reading about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The book steered him toward ministry, but when he sought out a Catholic priest for advice, he was told, “You’re qualified for university. Why don’t you take your scholarship, do a degree and decide from there?” Before George decided what he’d do, a friend gave him a book about Buddhism, which motivated him to attend a local Buddhist society’s meetings. Once, when a monk from Sri Lanka visited the group, George asked him how he might travel east and study to become a Buddhist monk. His identical response: go to university first, pursue religious life later. “It was as if to say my idea was just romantic,” George says.
George eventually followed another monk to Bangkok, where he trained at the renowned Wat Paknam temple. He earned his monk’s robes in 1956 but, with time, realized the advice he’d received might have been right: after his spiritual education, he began longing for academic training. He left Thailand, studied psychology at the University of Edinburgh and found work in a mental health ward in London and, later, a clinical psychology ward in Glasgow. There, he began treating alcoholism—a rare job. When he applied for a grant to fund his work, people laughed at him. “Alcoholism wasn’t highly regarded at the time,” he recalls. “If you were an alcoholic, there was no special help for you.”
Over time, George used behaviour therapy, an emerging practice, to help patients overcome habits and fears—insects, heights, sex—with unprecedented success. “George,” he remembers his boss once asking him, “are you sure you’re not doing some African black magic?”
A professor at York University in distant Toronto took a more amiable view of his work. In 1966, the academic invited George to teach at the school and found a program for alcoholics at Whitby General Hospital. He accepted, started the program (a precursor to the Pinewood Centre for Addictions in Oshawa, Ont.) and stayed there until his retirement 15 years later.
Since then, George has been no less of a Renaissance man. He took up storytelling and presented Afro-Caribbean folk tales and Buddhist legends in schools, theatres and festivals. He wrote a handful of books about Harriet Tubman, meditation and overcoming stage fright through Buddhism. He began building his own drums and giving workshops. He spent time with his two sons, one born in Scotland, the other in Canada.
Today, visit his Oshawa home and he’ll be solving a Sudoku puzzle, brewing a pot of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee for guests or perhaps building his own furniture. Meteorologist, civil servant, monk, psychologist, storyteller, author—and now carpenter. It shouldn’t be surprising that, even at 93, George managed to tack on another title. — Luc Rinaldi
(Portrait by Dillan Cools)