The Malta Independent 16 September 2019, Monday

Dr Herbert Messina Ferrante

Malta Independent Friday, 4 June 2004, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

I had approached Dr Herbert Messina Ferrante for an interview some time ago, and he has finally agreed to do it.

It is easy to be put off by the man’s rather high-handed manner, but he is not as fierce as he pretends to be.

Time and place were duly arranged, with him choosing a fish restaurant in Marsaxlokk called Ron’s which used to be a bar.

We climb the spiral staircase and find ourselves in a room which is packed with diners – clearly, word has got round about the food.

“I always come here because the fish is excellent,” Herbert pronounces in his commanding voice. The staff welcome him cheerfully as one of their regular clients, and we are shown to a table where we can have some privacy.

“I never thought I would become a dentist,” he begins. “By the time I was 15, I had passed all the exams I needed to enter university. In those days, the courses used to open every three years and I learned I had to wait another year. Medicine was always my prime aim so I went in as a doctor, but I knew I wanted to specialise in something, either as a gynaecologist or a surgeon. In pre-Med, doctors and dentists are put together and that is where I met Prof. Lapira, who was the Dean of Dental Surgery. Somehow we just clicked. One time he asked me to use forceps on the practice head which we used, and he told me, ‘you have a very good aptitude in your hands, I think you should become a dentist’. That was the beginning of my profession.”

He graduated at the age of 21. I can’t help but remark that he must have been quite brainy.

“Actually, I didn’t really enjoy studying, but I was blessed with one thing: a photographic memory. So I don’t think it’s my intelligence. Other people have to study and revise over and over, but I’ve always been able to remember things very easily.”

He spent several years overseas pursuing his studies further and gaining experience. On returning to Malta in 1968, he met the woman who would become his wife.

Smiling nostalgically, he tells me the story.

“I used to see this girl around named Elizabeth, about 18 years old, 10 years younger than me. The best looking woman in town, but she would never look at me. My friends said to me: ‘ajma, don’t even think about it. Do you know how strict her father is?’ I managed to get word to her during a Carnival party and our romance began.”

Was her father really that bad?

“Oh yes. I had just come back from London and those of us who had been living abroad did have a bit of a reputation. People would say to him: ‘she’s going out with that one?’ and of course her father would be influenced.”

There was a happy ending, however, and in the end they got married.

In the meantime, apart from settling down, Herbert had started practising his profession.

One thing which I’ve always wondered about dentists is whether there are aspects of their profession which they find unpleasant. Things such as people’s bad breath, for example.

“Well, the fact that you wear a face mask helps. Obviously, I don’t enjoy it, but you’d be surprised at who has bad breath. You can have a beautiful girl and the minute she opens her mouth, it’s like a cemetery. It’s not always their fault, sometimes it’s because they don’t have enough saliva. It could be stuff trickling down from the nose canal. Another thing is that people are not in the habit of brushing their tongues; these days we use tongue scrapers.”

I apologise if you’re reading this over breakfast, but I am interviewing a dentist after all.

Over the years Herbert agrees that there has been an enormous improvement in dental hygiene, with people becoming more conscious about their teeth and willing to pay for the treatment.

Dentistry is just one facet of this man’s life, however. Football is his other passion, both as a player and as an administrator at a local and national level, “I’ve spent half my life on one board or another.”

His heart belongs to Sliema Wanderers, of course, being a Sliema-born boy himself.

“But I can no longer go to the ground because I’m not the type who can just sit and watch; I have to be involved.”

Football doesn’t dominate his life now that he has left the MFA: “the President and I held diverse opinions,” he says enigmatically. “As for Sliema, it was time to move on to make way for new blood.”

For the last 20 years he’s lived in Attard where he has involved himself at community level, successfully contesting the local council elections in 2001. He is running for election again this year.

“Politics is something which has always interested me, but I always held back a bit because I was also a professional, and the two don’t mix. Now that I’ve cut back on my work, I can involve myself more. Local councils are important because it is only the people who live there who can really know the problems and what the town or village needs. Dedication makes things happen and whatever I do, I do it wholeheartedly.”

What I knew about Herbert before meeting him is that he has a rather unique hobby: a collection of pictures of himself meeting famous people. The minute I mention this, he brings out a thick file full of photos.

“It started when I used to live abroad and I began mixing with a certain section of society with which I’m still in contact. I get into the VIP sections through my friends,” he says as he points to photos of him shaking hands with Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair.

Herbert likes sending these photos to the society pages of local newspapers for publication.

Don’t people ever tease you about this?

“Oh, all the time! But I just ignore them. I can’t be bothered, let them talk,” he shrugs.

As we chat, I learn that Herbert went to school at St Aloysius College, from where many public figures have emerged. He agrees that it has to do with the formation they received.

“The Jesuits give you a certain strictness and building of character and this is what we Old Boys still have; that’s what we say when me meet up today. They were quite harsh with us, mind you, but it served us well.”

As the only boy among four sisters, Herbert acknowledges that he was spoiled, especially by his mother, but his father was extremely stern.

“I was always a rebel. If my father said white I’d say black and we found it hard to agree on anything.”

We take a break from the interview as our lunch arrives. If you are in a fish restaurant in Marsaxlokk, you are guaranteed the best catch of the day. Herbert had the cippolazza while I had the pagell, both very fresh and highly recommended by the owner himself.

Herbert and Elizabeth have one son, Edward who is 25 years old. Despite the age gap, father and son enjoy a relationship which is rare to find.

“I’m more like his brother. I tell him ‘I’m your friend, your father and your brother’. We go to Mass together and sometimes we even hold hands because I love him a lot and he knows it. We are always joking around about everything, including girls. He knows he can tell me anything and I won’t get angry. If he drinks too much, I tell him ‘phone me and I’ll come and get you even if it’s 4am’.

“I never ask any questions so as not to embarrass him. Sometimes I hear about friends of mine who have lost their relationship with their sons and I think they’re fools. Both my wife and I are crazy about children (iffissati fuq it-tfal) ”

One of the reasons he gave up smoking has to do with his son.

“Once someone took a photo of me smoking a cigar and my young son was looking up at me as if to say, ‘what the hell is my father doing?’. I gave it up and have campaigned against smoking ever since.”

He describes himself as having a short fuse, but his bad temper quickly passes. “What I want, I get,” is how he describes his single-minded determination in everything he does. Underneath the boisterous manner, however, lies a kind heart.

When I did my research about him, I learned that he does a lot of charity work through the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem of which he is a commander. He is also a knight of the Angelic Order of the Cross of Constantine the Great and a knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Are these just fancy titles?

“No, no,” he assures me. “These are philanthropic organisations which help those in need.”

His philosophy of life, instilled in him by his parents, is to be grateful for what he has and to never look down on others.

“My father used to always tell me ‘you have a roof over your head and others might not. If you have material things, you must give to those who don’t’. I’ve always remembered that. My mother was the same way, she was always thinking about other people first.”

To illustrate this he tells me a story of when his mother’s home was burgled and all the gold and jewellery left to him by his late father were stolen.

“My heirloom was gone (ma baqaghli xejn, xejn!). Then my mother comes along and tells me that she hopes that whoever stole them really needed the money, ‘maybe miskin he has nowhere to sleep at night’. That was her reaction; she saw no point in worrying or fretting about the money. That’s how we were raised. I put my head on my pillow at night with a clear conscience because I haven’t done anything to harm anyone else.”

The one person he greatly admires is Nelson Mandela, “he personifies struggle and struggle is my life,” he tells me.

I find it hard to believe that Herbert Messina Ferrante has ever really had to struggle but he assures me that it’s true, mainly because of people’s mistaken assumptions about him.

“Nothing came easy, but I’ve always succeeded in doing everything I’ve wanted.”

For despite having a gentler side, Herbert is very aware that the perception others have of him is not always flattering.

“I’ve often been told by people when they meet me in person that they had a different opinion of me before. In fact, a colleague on the local council even admitted that when he heard I was elected his first reaction was, ‘oh no, not him!’ (min gej maghna!). Then when he met me, we got along perfectly. People judge you by your outward appearance which can give a wrong impression, but when they get to know you they learn what a gentleman you are, how straight you are.”

So what is the remark you hear the most about yourself... ‘I thought you were...’?

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he laughs. “But definitely, they think I’m different from how I really am. Sometimes they assume that I’m some kind of snob because I’m from Sliema. People have called me all sorts of names, and it’s always been like that, since my student days. The thing is that I have never felt inferior to anyone, not even all these VIPs I meet, and maybe that’s what comes across. On the other hand, my patients have always told me that I make them laugh and that I’m different to other dentists.”

The final word Herbert has to say is about his wife,

“She understands me. She makes a lot of sacrifices as well and she’s the best woman I’ve ever met.”

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