The following obituary was written by Larry Waight and read by Mike Green at Peter Tonti’s memorial mass in San Ignacio Town, Belize on Wednesday, April 22,2015.
Nelson Mandela. George Cadle Price. Maya Angelou. Add the name Peter Tonti to those sorely missed by legions of people whose lives and futures were made better just because destiny brought him into their lives! Is this too grandiose a comparison to make when placing the name Peter Tonti into this star-studded company? Not if you know the extent to which the man impacted the nation of Belize for half a century—not if you’re aware of the fact that everything he touched during his life in Belize will continue to flourish because he had a hand in so many institutions, movements and changes that shaped the nation. Such is his legacy.
Peter Tonti’s story doesn’t begin with fame, fortune and recognition. A powerful urge to make the world a better place in which to live drove the young man to public service: He joined the Peace Corps in the 1970s and by God’s good grace, he was assigned to work with people in the little-known nation of Belize. Simple actions, big changes and sincere devotion to those with whom he interacted during his tenure became so rooted in his consciousness, when time came to end his Peace Corps service, he found himself incapable of leaving. Belize had become his home. And so he stayed to work among the people and the society he had come to treasure.
According to Proverbs 16:9, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” And so it was that Peter Tonti set off on a half-century journey in Belize that did not end until his untimely death on April 16, 2015. During the decades that spanned this era, it would be no exaggeration to say that Peter Tonti was one of the people who saw in Belize a remarkable haven destined to become a world-class tourist destination. All that was needed were visionaries like Peter to help mold the clay of Belize into its present state.
Did everything Peter Tonti undertook contribute to nation building? In a way, yes. His career was built of the bricks and mortar needed to shape a country, and as such, his tenure with the Reconstruction and Development Corporation was a first step along a path that rarely ventured outside the tourism industry. For it was in tourism that Peter realized that he could impact Belize’s metamorphosis from obscurity to the place Leonardo DiCaprio recently chose to build a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly resort.
Along the way, Peter affiliated with the Belmopan Convention Hotel in the 1980’s and he became a driving force behind the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) as a member, advisor and board member. His attention to detail and willingness to undertake anything necessary to help the BTIA prosper even resulted in Peter’s willingness to author BTIA’s constitution, no easy feat for a constitutional drafting neophyte!
Peter held prominent positions, such as CFO of the luxury resort, The Lodge at Chaa Creek which he led into its glory years from 1998 to 2013, before ultimately taking the reigns as CEO at the awe-inspiring hilltop Cahal Pech Village Resort. Meanwhile, his tireless committee and volunteer activities could only be called Herculean: As an Inter-American Development Bank’s Civil Society consultant and Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT) board member, Peter worked tirelessly to put Belize on the eco-environmental map. He was as zealous about protecting all that is lush, pristine and wondrous about the land as he was about rare archaeological sites and natural wonders.
With energy to spare, Peter Tonti traveled the planet extolling the virtues of Belize at trade shows, travel and marketing events and he certainly wasn’t above visiting other nations on his own just to spread the word about the place he had come to adore. Yet he still had work to do, which is why Peter Tonti co-founded Belizeglobe.com, an informational website about all-things-Belizean to promote and market his homeland.
With Larry Waight, his personal protégé and eventual business partner, who grew to regard him as a father, he jumpstarted the Belize Media Group (BMG) and helped grow what has now become one of the most widely read news sites in the country: BreakingBelizeNews.com. More than one million people across the country and in the Diaspora now regularly visit the site that might have never seen the light of day, had Peter’s path not crossed with Larry’s.
But, a man like Peter Tonti doesn’t become a legend by holding down jobs, serving on boards, weighing in on the right side of critical issues like environmentalism or advocating on behalf of a nation. Legends emerge because they touch people individually. They care. They are tender. Merciful and kind. And they are willing to go beyond what is expected of them to make a better world…which is why Peter Tonti left behind so many bereft people when he passed. We would be hard-pressed to mention all of them here, but no profile of a beloved man would be complete without quoting those who grieve this monumental loss.
One of the best places to start would be with his very own family, especially his beloved daughter Giuli who fondly recalls her father’s undying sacrifice for his family, from staying home to raise his children and run his business from home so that his wife could pursue her dream of being a dentist, to his talents as a cook and passion for food as he would call out to his children to “Come taste the pasta!” to ensure they understood the importance of it being perfectly aldente!
Peter’s son Gianni can proudly say that his father was a man of honor and of strong principles. “He always tried to do the right thing and emphasized that by doing the right thing, good things will come!” shared Gianni.
“His ultimate dream for me,” says Giuli, “was for me to learn how to be self-sustainable, financially independent, world traveled, and have peace in my heart.” His last lessons and wish for her and his children, she recalls, was that they learn to walk away from people that threaten their peace of mind, self-respect, and self worth. To follow their hearts and be comfortable in our own skin. But above all to love themselves.
One of the closest people in his life, as you may have guessed from now, Larry Waight, describes Peter as “a great man who lived with purpose and passion, a pioneer and avatar in Belize’s vibrant and vital tourism industry.” Waight fondly admired watching Peter make his life an exquisite work of art, all while urging others to “Go Big! Make things happen and change the world! He loved to issue this directive: We’ve only got one shot in this life, so let’s make it count, let’s make a difference, let’s make a contribution!” he would say, all of which left a lasting impression on Larry, and shaped the very course of his own life.
Among Waight’s favourite recollections is a story about Peter Tonti walking along Burns Avenue by himself at Christmas and encountering a homeless man who pleaded with him for something to eat. Without hesitating, Peter pulled bills from his pocket and handed them over without even checking the amount.
When the homeless man realized that this stranger had filled his palm with a large sum of cash, he was speechless. “He was the happiest man on earth at that moment,” Peter told Larry.
That moment in time would come full circle years later when Peter and Larry got together for one of their long walks. The two strolled to Burns Avenue and Santa Elena. It was late—around 9 p.m.—when they sensed that they were being followed.
Without a thought for his personal safety, Peter turned to confront the man and asked why he was following the two of them. The man’s response left both deeply moved: “I’m protecting you,” the stranger replied. “You are a kind man and I don’t want anyone to hurt you out here.” As fate would have it, their newfound bodyguard was the very same man who had been the recipient of Peter’s Christmas generosity!
What eulogy could surpass this tender story?
Larry Waight wasn’t the only person in Belize to be deeply touched by Peter Tonti. Cahal Pech Village Resort General Manager Tanya Silva remembers a time that Peter had more faith in Tanya than she was able to muster on her own. Recalling his wise words and sage advice will provide some comfort to Tanya in the days ahead, as will staying close to those who adored him—like Mike Green, Joe Awe, and Lloyd Alvarez.
“Because Peter was the consummate giver, he was incapable of giving less than everything in his possession—time, advice, money, you name it,” recalls Waight. “He expected nothing back, a trait that truly sets him apart from the crowd!” He loved to talk about tourism, history, world events—and he usually knew more than the rest of us, no matter how big the conversation circle happened to be!”
Did he have heroes? He did—and they were formidable men who forever changed the world. Among his favorites were Renaissance men like Stephen Covey, Jim Rohn, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs and the father of Belize, George Price. “Let’s just say that Peter would have been able to hold his own in the company of these great thinkers,” Waight speculates, “and I’m pretty sure he’s doing just that in heaven at the moment!”
When once asked to speculate about what he would like etched on his headstone, how he would want to be remembered, Peter Tonti didn’t hesitate. “I want to be remembered as the guy who made a difference in the lives of people in Belize. A guy who made a difference in the world,” he said. And how truly he lived up to this dream…
When it comes to the name Peter Tonti, there will be no forgetting and certainly no one capable of filling his shoes. The dream for Belize’s future burns brightly in the sun thanks, in good measure, to Peter Tonti having lived, worked and loved in Belize. And because he has left a profound mark on the nation and its people, his spirit will live on in the works, efforts and thoughts of those who loved him most.
Peter Tonti is survived by his wife Delita Tonti, his daughter Giulianna Tonti, his son Gianni Tonti, his grandsons Gian and Anthony, his granddaughter Danijela and brothers Louis Tonti, and Richard Tonti.
But most of all, he is survived by the spirit of generosity, selfless kindness and his unyielding, unwavering faith in this country. May that spirit continue to flourish among each and every one of us, as we move forward with his legacy in our hearts.
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