At the end of January, Alice Mae Coe retired from Walkers, marking the end of a 45-year career that was remarkable not only in its length with the firm, but also in the scope of changes she witnessed while there.
When she started with the firm on 14 June, 1965, Coe was only 18 years old. She had planned on becoming at teacher and was in fact working as a substitute teacher at the high school behind the George Town Library run by the Presbyterian Church at that time.
On Friday, 11 June, 1965, her career path took an abrupt turn, when William ‘Bill’ Walker showed up at the school. Walker had become only the second trained attorney in the Cayman Islands when he started a law firm on Grand Cayman in January, 1964.
“I need a secretary,” Coe says Walker said when he arrived.
Because she had completed some business studies while in high school, and had learned how to type, some elements of bookkeeping and commercial business practices, Coe says Walker was pointed in her direction.
“I was the only one who had reached that point where you dared call someone a secretary,” she says.
Three days later, Coe became the “& Company” part of W.S. Walker & Company, joining Walker in a two-room office in the Rembro Building on Cardinall Avenue.
In the early days, Coe said she served many functions.
“I was the girl Friday that did whatever had to be done,” she says. “I remember distinctly one day running back and forth between the office and the cable office six times.”
She was running back and forth between the cable office because back then, international telephone service wasn’t available in the Cayman Islands. In these early days of Cayman’s rise as an offshore financial centre, the business environment was quite primitive. Coe says there was no air conditioning back in those days and windows were left open to cool the office, allowing in mosquitoes and breezes that would blow papers around.
“You needed your paper weights back then,” she says.
Walker was one of the key players in Cayman’s growth as an offshore financial centre and Coe was there to witness that growth first hand. She typed some of the early documents that shaped Cayman’s business environment, from things like the Banks and Trust Companies Regulations Law to the first licence granted to Cable & Wireless; something that would eventually bring international telephone service to the Cayman Islands.
Back in those days, Cayman was a close knit community, Coe says.
“The business community was such a small community,” she said. “You could stand and look out the window of your office and everybody that went by, you knew who that person was. You knew where they worked, when they arrived, where they lived, everything. It was… like a family.”
Government and the private sector worked closely together, Coe says.
“If private sector had an idea they would put it before the government and say ‘one thing you should consider is…’ and government would look at it and if they agreed, they’d say, yes, let’s do that. It was really amazing how people worked together for the greater good.”
Coe says Caymanians and expatriates all got al
ong as well.
“It was a great partnership because Caymanians with their limited knowledge – not intelligence or common sense, but knowledge – of the outside world, laid a good foundation. It was quite stable and welcoming.”
Coe saw tremendous office technological advancements in her 45 years with the firm. When she started, she typed on a portable manual typewriter.
“I graduated from the portable typewriter to the Imperial 70, one of those monsters that built your muscles while you were pounding on the keys,” she says. “You’d use those for cutting stencils of laws or whatever you were doing. It was just the government who had the machine to run off these stencils – the Gestetner (mimeograph machine).”
Eventually, the firm acquired one of the earlier photo copiers, the kind that required liquid.
“Up until then if you wanted a copy of something, you typed a copy,” Coe says. “We’ve come along way.”
The onset of the computer age is something else Coe witnessed at Walkers.
Sometime in the early 1980s, she said, the firm obtained a Texas Instruments computer and the staff got a crash course on how to use it from trainers who were brought in.
“We only had one or two terminals at first,” she says. “We would get our turn to type a document on it otherwise we were using the typewriter.”
Then the firm upgraded to Data General computers.
“That’s when we got a few more terminals,” she says, adding that ultimately, some time in the mid-to-late 1980s, everyone got their own desktop computers.
Coe says she enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with the technology, but it didn’t necessarily make her job easier.
“The false idea that we humans have that if we have the most up-to-date equipment that it means life is easier,” she said. “But it’s not; you expect more of yourself and more is expected of you by others.”
Coe also saw Walkers grow from a small firm to a large one. The growth started with the addition of another attorney, Bruce Campbell, at the end of 1967.
“He stayed a year or so; not very long,” Coe says.
In 1970, Mike Poulson joined the firm and was made partner in the mid-70s, Coe says. Many other lawyers followed, as did more administration staff.
Some of the new additions stayed, while other left
; some to start their own firms.
“So many people got their kick-off out of the Walkers office,” she says.
Coe says that thousands of people came and went through the Walkers Group in the time she was there.
“We had some wonderful people come through the doors at Walkers and each one contributed in their own way to the development of the firm, and Cayman.”
Coe says she sometimes looks at the growth of the firm as she would as if it were one of her children, marking certain stages of life and making her proud. She says she also thinks of the firm’s growth, and similarly the growth of the Cayman Islands, as if it were an acorn planted a long time ago.
“It took a long time to sprout, but it’s turned into this huge tree with a lot of shade, a lot of benefit to so many.”
Role with Walker
Coe remained Wa
lker’s secretary/personal assistant until he retired at the end of September 1999, a 34-year span.
She noted that when she was hired, Walker had actually had one secretary before her, but she had quit because Walker was too demanding.
Coe says Walker was indeed demanding, but that it made her career more rewarding.
“He was a hard task master, but through that I was able to learn something about a lot of things,” she says. “Working with him was like continually being at school in that you were learning something new all the time. And he didn’t spoon feed me, which perhaps is why some people thought he was difficult to work with.”
Coe says Walker – who along with others often referred to her simply as ‘AMC’ – would sometime give her matters and tell her only to “deal with it”. She says she would do the best she could, and put question marks next to things she wasn’t sure of.
“He would go through it with a fine tooth comb and correct it where necessary,” she says. “And without any conceit, I would say most of the time I got an A.”
Coe says Walker wasn’t all that comfortable with technology.
“He hated Dictaphones,” she says. “He said he didn’t like talking into a Di
cataphone because a Dictaphone could not correct him. He didn’t like technology that much.”
Coe worked 45 years, seven months and 17 days with the firm.
“And a couple of hours, too, probably,” she says, smiling.
The firm’s usual retirement age is 60, but because she was with it almost from the start, she was allowed to stay longer.
On her final day in the office, the firm had a reception for her where she was presented with a gift and a cheque to be shared among some of the many local charitable organisations with which she has been associated.
lkers’ Global Managing Partner Grant Stein thanked Coe for her outstanding contribution to the firm and wished her well in her retirement.
“One of the greatest assets of any organisation is the dedicated service of its employees and Walkers is proud to have had the pleasure of so many years with Alice Mae Coe.”
Now 65, Coe says she will take a break for a little while.
“In due course, I will have to get a new job,” she says, adding however, that it won’t be a full time job.
She will also stay involved in the community.
Over the years, she’s been actively involved in church; with Cayman’s Beautification Committee; with the NCVO’s children and community care program; and with a non-governmental advocacy group called Concerned Citizens. She also cooks and takes food to shut-ins.
“I have a lot of things to do, but still not enough time to do everything.”