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On Island Profile: Guy Benjamin


March 17, 2005 –– One of Guy Benjamin's favorite stories centers around an encounter he had with a tourist quite a few years back. The woman was snapping photos of the Coral Bay, St. John school that bears his name when Benjamin happened by.
The woman, of course, had no idea that she had asked the school's namesake to pose for a quick picture. After Benjamin asked her to send him a copy of the photo, she asked for his name and address. He said she was quite surprised to learn the school was named after him, but he showed her the mail in his hand that was addressed to Guy Benjamin to prove his identity.
"Three weeks later I got the pictures, and she said she still didn't believe it was me," he said, laughing.
The school changed its name from Benjamin Franklin School to Guy Benjamin School when he retired in 1965 from his post as an Education Department superintendent.
His retirement came after a very long career in the education field. Born Oct. 18, 1913 at St. John's East End, he had his first taste of teaching when he stayed at the East End School for three years after he finished the sixth grade so he could help out with the younger children.
After that experience, he went on to board with a St. Thomas family so he could attend Abraham Lincoln School, later renamed the J. Antonio Jarvis School.
He said he went to junior high at a long-since-closed school on Crystal Gade, and went on to graduate from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1934.
"I was the first St. Johnian to graduate from high school," he says with pride.
He taught first at the Horace Mann School in John's Folly, later teaching at the East End, Bethany, Benjamin Franklin and Julius E. Sprauve Schools. Horace Mann, East End and Bethany schools closed many decades ago.
During his years as a teacher, he helped initiate the first ferry boat service between St. John and St. Thomas so St. John children could attend school beyond sixth grade. Before the ferry started, they had to board on St. Thomas, a luxury few parents could afford.
He said he made the effort because he had a very bright student whose father couldn't spend the money to send his son to St. Thomas for further education.
Benjamin credits Rodney Varlack, Loredon Boynes and Victor Sewer with starting the first ferry service. Boynes and Sewer are dead, but Varlack continues to be active in Varlack Ventures ferry and transportation company.
He said that a Manassah bus met the students at Red Hook for the trip to Charlotte Amalie High School.
While teaching school, he spent summers attending the University of Puerto Rico before finally heading off to Howard University in Washington, D.C. to get his bachelor's degree.
Benjamin came back home to teach for another 15 years before a year's paid sabbatical sent him to Europe.
He said one highlight in his life came when he was lying on the floor of the Sistine Chapel to better take in the wonders of Leonardo da Vinci's splendid ceiling.
"When I got back to earth, laying next to me were two nuns," he said, still marveling at what he saw on his trip by freighter across the Atlantic Ocean.
He came back to St. John to teach for another 15 more years before heading off the New York University to get his master's degree. He graduated in 1964.
After his retirement, he moved back to New York for many decades, spending summers on St. John. He finally came home for good four or five years ago.
He started writing while in New York and has published two books, "Me and My Beloved Virgin" and "More Tales for Me and My Beloved Virgin." The books were reissued in 2000 as a combined volume.
Benjamin said he got the idea to write from the late Doris Jadan, who died last year. He said he was talking about how his grandmother bought East End land for $8 when Jadan told him that he ought to write all these stories down.
Benjamin and St. John resident Bernie Kemp are working on a book about how the East End residents provided for themselves. He doesn't know when it will come out.
Benjamin, from the vantage point of his 92 years, has lots of observations and opinions. When asked, he'll tell you exactly what's on his mind.
For starters, he said he thinks it's "completely too late" for anyone who doesn't already own St. John land to buy some. He's said he's bothered by the fact that natives continue to sell their land because they can get astronomical prices.
"They've lost sight of the important thing. They have children who will have children," he says, wishing they'd leave the land for their heirs.
He's also unhappy with the pace of development on St. John, and in particular, Coral Bay.
"The quality of life has changed," he said.
He said he's bothered by the rumor that the land where Guy Benjamin School sits may fall victim to development.
Benjamin, who never married, said he sees that single motherhood has led to all sorts of problems for such families.
He's invited often to various events, and spoke fondly of how the Ocean Conservancy put him up at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on St. Thomas so he could attend its March 11 Coral World events celebrating a new exhibit and the launch of its book, "The State of the Coral Reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands."
When he's not busy with such endeavors, he says he's content to spend time in his small Coral Bay home filled with a lifetime's worth of memorabilia.
"I have my friends Shakespeare and Nostradamus," he says, relaxing in his comfortable chair.
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