Robert Reneau was a national treasure for Belizeans

Robert William Reneau, a musician, singer, dancer, composer, playwright, producer, artist, broadcaster, teacher and choreographer for many years in his native country of Belize, is considered a national treasure and a pillar of the country’s arts and culture.

Honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, he performed before royalty and presidents, and was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Belize Arts Council in 1999, in part for his efforts to preserve and promote Belizean culture in the arts.

A Baha’i since the early 1960s, Robert passed away May 30, 2012, at age 92. He had lived more than three decades in Wilmette, Illinois, and contributed to many artistic programs at the Baha’i House of Worship as well as serving there frequently as a guide.

In a letter of tribute, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States wrote, “He will be fondly remembered by fellow Baha’is as a deepened and devoted servant of the Faith whose joyful spirit had a uniting effect on those around him. His unique talents … were offered abundantly in service to humanity, calling to mind ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s statement that ‘All art is a gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

A statement from Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History praised “this man of God” for his artistic service not only to his homeland but also to Belizean communities in the United States.

Born in 1920 in what was then British Honduras, Robert was artistic from an early age. He came in 16th out of 70,000 in a Canadian-sponsored visual art contest at age 13.

In young adulthood he sought training to overcome a severe speech defect and schooled himself in singing and acting. To teach himself dance, he studied thousands of pictures of various dance positions and later took short courses in New York, Canada and Jamaica.

As early as 1948 he was staging mammoth musical, dance and dramatic productions, writing many of them himself. He taught many forms of dance for over 35 years in Belize. He was founder and “coach” of the Bobettes, a popular women’s singing and dancing troupe.

In Belize City, he was a teacher and mentor to many at the Halls of St. Mary’s School and the Bob Reneau School of the Dance in the 1950s and ’60s. His dance troupe performed for enthusiastic audiences in the Caribbean, elsewhere in the Americas, and in England. Also, by 1959 he was a regular radio announcer.

In 1975, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed upon him the honor of being a member of the Order of the British Empire, as well as an opportunity for performance before royalty. His troupe also performed for the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico.

As British Honduras became an independent Belize in the 1980s, Robert used his influence and built relationships to preserve the Creole culture as an important artistic voice in his country, when political currents appeared to threaten it.

His productions, such as “The Holy City,” “The Mahogany,” “It’s a Good Day,” “Sons of Honduras,” “Breggin’ Tuba” and “Wedding Bells for Kettiebell,” were valued for bringing out the best points of the national character. He and groups he directed consistently won prizes in Belize’s National Festival of the Arts.

After moving to the Chicago area in the 1970s, he continued to perform from time to time, and contributed to such productions as the Miss Belize Florida Pageant in 1991–92. He would visit dance classes across the country that were developed by his former students, offering praise and encouragement to the students and teachers.

Several days each week in his later years, Robert would perform either at the House of Worship or “wherever asked: at firesides, children’s classes and fund raisers,” according to his wife, RoseMarie. He was given the Corinne True Nightingale Award for meritorious service at the House of Worship. He wrote several songs about the Baha’i Faith, including “Be a Baha’i,” which is sung around the world, and in the past few years taught children his newer songs.

In 1998 Robert suffered a stroke that severely affected his speech, but he worked to overcome the impediment. He continued for many years to provide music at the Baha’i House of Worship, whether at formal programs, collaborating with other local musicians, or simply playing the piano in Foundation Hall for the enjoyment of weekend visitors.

His deteriorating health kept him from performing or teaching the Faith at the House of Worship in his last six years. He focused anew on painting, creating more than 100 pieces in the last four years of his life.

On his 90th birthday he received many tributes, including those from former Bobettes who virtually all recalled an encouragement that Robert frequently offered his students: "Never say you cannot do something. If you have faith in yourself and in our Lord, you can accomplish anything you set your heart on doing."

His wife wrote, “When God created the soul of Robert William Reneau, He filled it with every imaginable artistic form — and Robert truly used his gifts from God all through his life to teach and enrich the lives of every one he met, not only in the artistic fields but in dedication and service to our Lord!”

Robert Reneau’s survivors include his wife, RoseMarie; four daughters, Barbara, Jeanette, Cynthia and Carolyn; three sons, Robert Jr., Norman and Gerald; two sisters, Gladys and Nona; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His son Frank preceded him in death.

 

Information from Rose Marie Reneau and past issues of The American Baha’i as well as Amandala Online and other Internet news sources