Devon McKenzie was just 44 when he died of a stroke on Aug. 13 at the Niagara Falls Hospital, with his family far away, at home in Jamaica.
Known by his co-workers at Stratus Vineyards as Rocky, a very emotional and moving service was held for him Saturday morning in a stunning setting outdoors, behind the winery and overlooking the vineyards, attended by about 60 people. The men who worked with him were given the day off to grieve and celebrate his life, first at the service at the winery and then continuing at their East and West Line residence with a barbecue for all who could attend.
Although Rocky’s six children — one as young as three, and up to the age of 25 — are in Jamaica, his brother Sean, his sister-in-law, nieces and nephews and other relatives in Ontario came to the service.
Other than Rocky’s children, most of his family is here in Canada, Sean said.
Stratus winemaker Dean Stoyka worked closely with Rocky, and said he considered him one of his best friends.
The Stratus foreman had worked for the winery for 20 years, and Stoyka, who came to Stratus in 2010, said he and the other men “were like a brotherhood. They’re our family, and we take care of our family.”
Rocky had been working year-round in Niagara-on-the-Lake the last three years, so lived alone during the winter months. He spent a lot of time with Stoyka and his family, and was hoping for permanent residency in Canada to work full-time for the winery, which Stratus was helping him with.
That was one of the last things he said while he was able to talk, the day after he had his stroke, says Stokya. When he visited Rocky in the hospital, he said he wanted to come home to complete his application for permanent residency, and Stoyka said, ‘that’s great, we’ll help you.”
That wasn’t to be. His condition worsened, he was sent to Hamilton to relieve swelling on his brain, and then back to Niagara Falls when he seemed to be recovering. Instead, he died shortly after.
Stoyka and director of winemaking, J-L Groux both spoke of Rocky’s contribution to the success of Stratus wines, by ensuring they had the best grapes.
“You don’t make great wine without a great vineyard,” said Groux. “We made the wine, he made the grapes.”
“He was a great leader,” said Stoyka, “and the most distinctive, happiest guy. He made the hours go by like minutes.”
He also had a passion for farming, an impressive knowledge of viticulture as well as a love of driving the tractor, a skill for looking after vineyard equipment, and also woodworking and carpentry. “Anything that needed to be build at the farm, he would build it.”
Pastor Albert Dawkins asked those gathered to be “very intentional in your grief,” and to remember “the life Devon has lived, and the legacy he has left behind. He has done his tenure here, and he has fought the good fight.”
He said it wouldn’t be easy for the men to go back to work, knowing Rocky wouldn’t be there, but encouraged them to be strong, saying the greatest gift from Rocky would be “permission to keep on living. He would be cheering you on, and his intention for you would be to keep on keeping on.”
No matter how much this hurts, he said, “you will always look back and learn from your struggle. You will find a way to carry on. And remember all you are trying to do is to make your world a world of peace, without Devon.”
Stoyka said to honour Rocky, “care for your friends, call them, tell your friends and family you love them. You never know when your last moment is going to come. Cherish your loved ones and tell them every single day.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd when a video was shown of Rocky’s children at home, several of them saying although they didn’t get to see a lot of him while he was away working, they knew it was for them.
When he was at home, he made the most of his time with them, and each said how much they loved him and missed him.
The celebration closed with photos of Rocky and the Bob Marley song, “don’t worry about a thing, every little thing’s going to be alright.”
Speaking after the service, Dianne Hughes, a volunteer who first met Rocky she was dropping off welcome kits for farmworkers, described Stratus as one of the best employers, adding organizing and paying for the day-long celebration of life, and giving the men the day off to grieve, “is unheard of.”
She recalled a time when a Jamaican gospel singer was going to give a concert at a near-by church, and said she would like a tour of a winery led by farmworkers. Stratus agreed, “and it was done beautifully. It was a delightful tour.”
When it came time to end the tour with a tasting at the winery, “staff included Rocky and one of the other men from the house, treating them just like they were any other guests of the winery.”
She also mentioned that once a week Stratus brings tutors to the winery to help the men with English, math, and business skills, helping them qualify for a high school equivalent.
Jane Andres, also with extensive knowledge of the lives of offshore farmworkers, knew Rocky, and how well the winery treats their employees.
“Stratus has really been exemplary in building a tight team, including the Jamaican employees, and giving them a voice,” she says, mentioning a meal that was prepared for a group of magazine writers visiting to write about wine pairings with food.
“The Jamaican employees suggested that they do the cooking. Stratus took them up on their offer and they created an authentic Caribbean experience complete with the Stratus wines they paired with the meal.”
They were all excited as a team to make it happen, Andres said, calling it just one example of the core values of Stratus, “and the respect they have for every employee.”