Living life to the full every day

  • In tune: Calvin Ming playing his beloved cornet (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
  • Calvin Ming plays his cornet (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
  • Family man: Calvin Ming Jr with his children, Calvin Ming III, left, Carol McDowell and Carla Ming Reese

For years Calvin Ming Jr marched with the Salvation Army Band in the annual Remembrance Day parade. But in 1992, he found himself sidelined.

At 44, his heart was failing fast due mostly to congenital issues. He had been putting off a heart transplant for three years, insisting that he felt fine, but he did not have the energy to march and blow his beloved cornet.

“I remember my good friend Dr Derrick Binns sat consoling me,” he said. “That was the moment I knew something had to be done.”

On April 4, 1993, after a long and difficult surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, he became the second person in Bermuda to receive a heart transplant.

Today, he often thinks of his donor, a 19-year-old high diver.

“I tried to find his family, but they weren’t ready to meet me just yet,” Mr Ming said. “If I could say anything to them it would be ‘thank you’. I want them to know that I have never sat on that heart. I have always tried to make the best use of it.”

Even with the operation, doctors could not promise him more than another five to eight years of life.

Living on what he thought was borrowed time made him a little more pushy and determined to get things done in the time he had left.

“I never thought I’d live to see 2020,” the 72-year-old said.

People told him to stop playing the cornet after his transplant, but he did not listen to them. He thinks blowing it has probably been good for his lungs and may have helped to extend his life.

“I just love playing,” he said.

His grandfather, Salvation Army band leader Ernest Bean, taught him and his two brothers, Melvin and Carleton, to play at the age of 6.

He picked the cornet up quickly, but did not have such an easy time with academics. He struggled to learn to read and was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 15.

Teachers at the old Central School told his parents, Hester and Calvin Ming, not to expect much from him. Ignoring their advice, they sent him to Montclair, New Jersey where teachers eventually taught him to read.

“They said you’re not dumb, Calvin,” he said. “I was able to take the SAT exams and got average marks. I also developed musically and was able to play in the world-famous New Jersey Youth Symphony and travelled all over the world.

“That was a huge opportunity. If I developed any brain power, it was probably through music because of the learning, discipline and principles that are involved.”

He went to college to become a funeral director but, after working in the industry part-time for a few years, developed an allergy to some of the chemicals used.

“They might have also contributed to my heart condition,” Mr Ming said.

He met his wife, Juanita, at church in Bermuda.

“I would come back in the summer periods and wonder who that beautiful girl was,” he said. “I got to meet her. When I finished my first year of college and came back, we were serious.”

They were married on April 17, 1971, and will celebrate their 49th anniversary this year. They have three children: Carol McDowall, Carla Ming Reese and Calvin Ming III.

“I am really proud of my wife,” Mr Ming said. “She has been with me to death’s doorstep many times.”

Over the years he held a number of jobs in the Civil Service, first as a budget administrator for the prison system.

“It was a time when prisons were going through a renaissance and were looking at new methods of doing things,” he said. “I had some training in budget development. I had been working for Argus Insurance and Bermuda Drug Company, helping certain divisions. Going into Government, we were able to really make some significant systems changes in how it ran in the areas of training its staff members, and areas of budgeting.”

In the 1980s, he did similar work at the Ministry of Health and Social Services.

“The premier at that time was John Swan. He said he wanted to look in depth at drug and alcohol abuse. He wanted to have a Commission of Inquiry. He bought in David Archibald. I was his right-hand person and administrator for that commission.

“We were able to develop policies. Spinning from there was the National Alcohol and Drug Agency. To start to put some of the recommendations in place, I worked with the commission for five years as the executive director. We found out that we had to go a lot broader than just this particular department. We needed a national strategy.”

After his heart transplant, he worked with the Salvation Army on a few projects, then worked with the National Drug Commission to help develop a drug “prevention army”. Out of that came schemes such as the sex offender programme and also drug treatment programmes for young people.

In 2011, his kidneys failed due to the medications he had been taking since the transplant.

“The doctors said we never thought you’d live so long, so we didn’t think about that,” said Mr Ming, who explained that this time his son, Calvin, was the donor.

“The surgery was on his birthday. He is doing really well today. I will be for ever grateful to him.”

He retired a year later.

For the past four years, he has been director of public relations at the Salvation Army, but is preparing to step down from the post.

“I will still be volunteering with the Salvation Army,” he said. “I just won’t be in that post.”

He wants to spend more time with his five grandchildren who range in age from 19 to 1.

“I want to spend the time with them that my grandparents spent with me,” he said.

He is teaching several of them to play the cornet.

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them