Oliver Foot: President of Orbis International, the world's only flying eye hospital
Saturday 09 February 2008
As president of Orbis International, the flying eye hospital, Oliver Foot was responsible for saving millions of people worldwide from blindness, most of them in the developing world. To the charity he brought not only indomitable energy and charismatic and witty leadership, but fund-raising skills that, over the years, brought Orbis more than $200m in funding. He was a lifelong socialist and humanitarian, and a member of an impeccably left-wing aristocratic family; his uncle was the Labour leader Michael Foot. His other great passion was Jamaica, the country of his birth, an island he championed throughout his life and that, according to his wife Gail, "held his soul and heart".
The son of the diplomat Hugh Foot (later Lord Caradon), Oliver was born in Kingston in 1946 where his father was High Commissioner. Growing up with there his brothers Paul – later the celebrated journalist – and Benjamin, in the considerable splendour of King's House, his father's official residence, Foot would prefer to spend time with the sons of the gardener; as a small child he would filch money from his parents' pockets to give to the poor at the King's House gates.
From an early age he was accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the world's elite. He would tell of how, as a young boy, he had sat opposite Queen Elizabeth at dinner; she had smiled conspiratorially at him when she observed him surreptitiously removing food from his mouth and placing it in his napkin. When, years later, they met again at an official engagement, Her Majesty reminded him, "We share a secret, don't we, Oliver?"
In the tradition of his family, Foot attended the distinguished Quaker school Leighton Park, in Reading. He did not flourish academically and left with – as he put it – "half an O-level". He found himself, however, when he studied acting at Goddard College in Vermont in the United States. He also found his first wife, Nancy, a blonde surfer girl whom he met at a rally against the Vietnam war, an event that accorded with the semi-hippie he had become. Returning with Foot to England to his family home, Nancy was surprised to discover that it was a castle in Cornwall.
There, at Trematon Castle, near Saltash, Oliver and Nancy founded the Footsbarn Theatre, a non-profit, grassroots, travelling-theatre company that revived the Cornish legends, Shakespeare and modern theatre. The group made their own costumes, wrote original works and did their own choreography and music. However, as the success of Footsbarn grew, Foot increasingly indulged himself with stimulants. Finally he fell on his uppers, and lived a life that could have come from the script of Withnail and I, at times so cold that he and his flatmate would take it in turns to sit on the radiator.
His life of indulgence effectively came to an end after he was caught stealing a pair of jeans from a shop: "Peer in hot pants drama" read the headline in the News of the World. At the subsequent trial, his father stood up for his son, blaming himself.
After joining Alcoholics Anonymous, and embracing Christianity, Foot went through a remarkable transformation. After several jobs in public relations, he joined the fledgling Orbis International in New York in 1982, becoming its executive director, and then president.
Orbis had converted the cabin of a DC8 into an eye surgery, and travelled to the world's impoverished nations, teaching local ophthalmologists the latest sight-saving procedures. "I was astonished how Oliver had changed," said Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, who had first known him in Jamaica. "It was during this period that he really reminded me of his father: he worked tirelessly on raising money for Orbis, which was an amazing project. He had all his father's diplomatic skills when it came to opening up new countries for Orbis."
After exhausting himself raising funds for a larger plane – he appeared in a television documentary clearly frazzled – Foot downgraded his role with Orbis in 1995 and joined Air Jamaica. He had already bought a small coffee plantation on the island, and now he became a roving ambassador for the place he regarded as his true home. "His love for Jamaica was deep," said Butch Stewart, who at the time ran the airline. "Wherever he travelled, he proselytised incessantly for the country."
Although Jamaica offered opportunities for a sumptuous lifestyle, Foot was also taken with the country's darker downside. "He could mix equally with aristocrats, prostitutes, drug addicts and thieves," said Gail. After joining Orbis, Foot had become friends with Fidel Castro and each of the Bush presidents, a measure of his social mobility.
In 2004 he was reunited full-time with Orbis as its president, and last November travelled to Palestine – for long a cause of his father's – to put together a forthcoming visit from the charity.
Oliver Isaac Foot, charity executive: born Kingston, Jamaica 19 September 1946; executive director, Orbis International 1982-87, president 1987-95, 2004-08; married 1970 Nancy Bruce (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1975), 2005 Gail Kirpichnikov; died London 6 February 2008.
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