BitDepth 703 - October 27

Astra Da Costa passed away suddenly last week. These are some my memories of her life.
This one’s for ADC

In June, Astra Da Costa sat for this portrait, for what she described with typical restraint as “some Rotary business,” before she was appointed District Governor. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Astra Da Costa always remembered the first time she met with me with an appalling clarity. I was 19 and had arrived for what I thought was a casual meeting at AMPLE, then a tiny pair of offices on upper Frederick Street.
Into a subdivided space that hardly qualified in sum as a modern executive’s office, I apparently strolled in wearing slippers with a beer in a paper bag. I’d always hotly disputed that latter fact with her, since I never liked lager and certainly wouldn’t be strolling in the street swigging it.
In spite of this appalling first impression, she warily greenlit my cousin Alfred’s suggestion that I do work for their new company. I apparently did well enough after discovering shoes to get hired as, I believe, the sixth employee, after Margaret Lewis (nee Mulcare), Ann Allick and Horace Harrigin.
When I showed some aptitude for photography, it would be Astra’s decision to approve buying additional equipment to supplement my own meagre gear and in so doing, set me irrevocably on the road to becoming a photographer.

But I didn’t just learn how to take commercial photos at AMPLE. I also got a schooling in just how difficult it was to build a business and how cruel the decisions that lead to success sometimes have to be.
After two and a half years, I left the company on very bad terms. In retrospect, it was mostly because I’d joined a small business that ran with the informality of a family enterprise and had grown more irritable as the formalities of business growth had to be applied.
Being young, I was also selfish, so I didn’t really understand until years later what it had taken out of Astra to create a business that lasted decades. Then, with the cruft of youthful wrath cleared away, I heard so many of her early conversations more clearly.
Fighting for my own presence and independence in the face of market realities,  I remembered the sentiments of a woman of significant talent and creative ability, a broadcaster with a voice that would have positioned her among the best, someone with the potential to be astounding on television, who had set aside those prospects for an administrative desk job.

The tough manager
The person she became was the person that AMPLE needed to be successful, the tough manager willing to make unpopular decisions. The eldest Da Costa, she was raised to be an intellectual; her brothers got the coaching from her haberdasher father on running a business. That chafed her in the early days, having to learn to be a businessperson on her own. 
That’s a situation that could have left anyone bitter. Instead, it drove her to excellence. Pushed to wear the mantle of the businesswoman, she asked for the helmet and shield as well, forging forward with the brusque, direct enthusiasm for her work that smart people didn’t challenge directly.
Speaking at her funeral service, Alfred Aguiton noted with breathtaking accuracy that she was “an extraordinarily private, public person.”
In the decades since I stormed out of AMPLE, we became friends, sometimes close, other times distant, usually when something went badly with me and the business. In the end, I stopped working for the company entirely and became one of the people she would occasionally call for specific counsel or just a different perspective.

There were few of us, I know, because she demanded absolute discretion and trust in the matters she confided and there simply aren’t many people who can keep their mouths shut about the business of high profile people.
So, no, you won’t be getting any scores or zeppie about Astra from me, and really, I ultimately didn’t know her whole life. I knew nothing about her work with Rotary, little about the day to day challenges of AMPLE and Queen’s Hall, and only met a few members of her large family tree.

But Astra was absolutely fearless in facing challenges from anyone, lioness defensive of her company, surprisingly tender and sweet with those she trusted and cared for and tireless in her pursuit of that ever elusive extra mile of service.
That she was brought down while on the job should be no surprise to anyone who knew her. She was a soldier in the service of her work, and she kept her boots on to the end. Those responsibilities should have shackled her, but they liberated her. She wielded her signing pen like a rapier, slashing “ADC” like Zorro in a business suit. 
Astra Da Costa lived a poem and left a legacy. 
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