Sept. 14, 2001 – Blanche Sasso is like a flesh-and-blood history book. Celebrating her 102nd birthday on Saturday, she speaks with a twinkle in her eye and a clarity of remembrance that transports the listener back to the days of Danish rule. More than a storyteller, Sasso is a living territorial treasure who has made an indelible print on the Virgin Islands and its people — and continues to do so on a daily basis.
Remembering the Danish days
Blanche Mary Joseph was the youngest of five children born to Ernestine and Julius Joseph on Sept. 15, 1899, on St. Thomas, then part of the Danish West Indies. Her mother's ancestors were native Caribbean Amerindians, and her father's background was part Dutch, part Sephardic Jew.
A century ago, life was much different than it is now. "Men all wore suits, and ladies had blouses with high collars and skirts that went down over their ankles," Sasso recalls. Fabric stores and seamstresses were the way of obtaining a wardrobe, for there were no ready-made clothes
"Main Street was dirt when I was a girl, and there were posts along the streets to hitch donkeys," she recalls. "No one really traveled up in the hills or to the east end of the island. Everything was centered around town."
Although little of the Danish language was spoken or taught back in those days, English being the primary language, the Danes exerted a big influence over Sasso for the first 17 years of her life.
On the day that the islands were transferred to the United States, in 1917, "I remember we stood up on the top of the fort [Fort. Christian] and looked down into the Barracks [the Legislature Building]," Sasso says. Since her father was a government official, the family received a special invitation to view the ceremony from the vantage point of the fort ramparts. Most of the crowds flocked along the small street that ran in front of the Barracks.
The transfer ceremony began at mid-day, in Danish. Soon, a military band from Denmark was playing the country's national anthem as the red and white Dannebrog was lowered down the flag pole and the Stars and Stripes immediately was hoisted in its place.
"No one made a sound. You could hear a pin drop," Sasso recalls. The mood of the crowd was both happy and sad. "We had mixed feelings. My family was sad because we lived all our lives as Danes, and now we were going to be the subjects of this rich nation. We knew what we had with the Danes, but we weren't sure what to expect from the new ties."
Four years later, Sasso and her sister, Grace Sparks, would play a highly significant role in the new territory's history.
The new territory's first flag
In 1921, Sasso's sister Grace had just married P.W. Sparks, a captain's yeoman aboard the USS Vixen commanded by William Russell White, who also was chief of staff for the territory's civilian governor, Rear Adm. Sumner E.W. Kittelle. One day during a staff meeting at Government House, Kittelle asked White to come up with some ideas for a flag. White immediately turned to Sparks because of his artistic ability.
Looking at the Great Seal of the United States, Sparks borrowed the majestic symbol of an eagle. He placed three arrows in the bird's left claw to symbolize the three Virgin Islands as well as Freedom, Happiness and Independence, and an olive branch in the right claw to represent peace.
The Vixen had no facilities for flag-making, so Sparks took his design home for his wife and Sasso to embroider. "It took us a long time," Sasso says. "It was a big flag." The story of the flag, including her name, were recorded in the Congressional Record of April 30, 1986.
Educating as a way of life
Sasso learned to embroider as a student at the Convent School, located in the buildings that now house the Department of Education offices across from what today is called Roosevelt Park. The school was run by the Belgian Order of La Sainte Union du Sacre Coeur de Jesus.
After her graduation, "I wanted to go into nursing," Sasso says. But it wasn't a prestigious profession, and her father persuaded her to go into teaching instead. This fateful career path would eventually lead Sasso to made her mark on generations of Virgin Islanders.
She began teaching in the St. Thomas and St. Croix public schools. This was in the days when children rode to school on donkeys, well-to-do families drove carriages, meals were cooked over coal pots and kerosene stoves, and iceboxes kept food fresh. In these days, too, single-band radios carried news of the world, ringing cowbells brought neighbors running, and steamer ships were the only means of traveling to the mainland — until famed aviator Charles Lindbergh touched down on what today is the golf course at the University of the Virgin Islands.
After a decade with the public school system, Sasso opened her own school, called The Miss Joseph Private School. "We didn't have grades. Rather, it was first class, second class and so on. Each child moved along based on how they were doing," Sasso explains. Arithmetic, spelling and English were core subjects, along with penmanship. "You sat and did your seat work until your penmanship was perfect," she remembers.
Parents played a big role at her school. "We depended on the parents to discipline children; it wasn't up to the teacher alone," she says.
By the late 1930s, Sasso decided to call a halt to her teaching career and marry Ernest D. Sasso, then treasurer of the Virgin Islands. They became the parents of a daughter, Leah.
It was the fall of 1950 that Father Mark Knoll of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral asked Sasso to come out of retirement to teach elementary children at the Catholic School. "My husband didn't want me to go," Sasso remembers. "I had duties in the home, and now I was being asked out." Her compromise was to go back to teaching as a substitute.
"I said I would work until they could find some college-trained teachers. But year after year, they kept asking me to stay." Her substitute teaching spanned 17 years, until her husband died suddenly. "Grief overtook my patience, and then I knew it was time to go home," she says.
For today's parents, students and educators, Sasso says, "Respect, discipline and communication" are key. "It grieves me that much of this is lacking today," she says somberly.
Accolades from president and pope
Since her retirement, Sasso has been honored as "Teacher of the Year" on several occasions and has received recognition from the Catholic Daughters of America, the Catholic Diocese of the Virgin Islands, Sts. Peter and Paul School and Rotary II.
On her 90th birthday, she was presented with a plaque from the Legislature honoring her for almost five decades of service in the field of education, as well as for her role in creating the Virgin Islands flag. She also received congratulations from the White House and a personal written tribute from President and Mrs. George Bush.
On her 100th birthday, she was honored in a special mass at the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral and received a blessing from Pope John Paul II. Of all her honors, Sasso says, the papal blessing is the most special to her. "He's our official spiritual leader, our shepherd," she says of the pope.
"I've had a very happy life," Sasso reflects. "We weren't rich, but we were blessed." A teacher still, to her own family and to her extended Virgin Islands family, she continues to impart her greatest lesson for new generations, the one inherent in her personal motto: "Life is an echo. What you send out is what comes back to you."


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