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On Island Profile: William Cissel


Nov. 6, 2005 – William Cissel seems to be more than just an historian; he seems to be a bit of history himself. He was born on Transfer Day in 1950 at the old Municipal Hospital in Christiansted.
However, when he talks about the three great motivators in his life, history is not the first one. Religion is.
But then, when talks about religion, he talks about it in an historical context. He has worshiped at St. John's Anglican Church in Christiansted for most of his life. He has served in the highest position a layman can – a senior warden. He says, "My great-grandfather was the senior warden there from 1885 to 1915. I could point to you the pew he sat in."
His third great motivator is family and when he talks family that talk too is entwined with historical notes.
The porch on which he sat Nov. 3 for this interview was on the Great House of Estate La Reine built around 1750 and has been in his family's hands since the early 1840s. First it was a sugar plantation, then a cattle farm. In recent years many of the 225 original acres have been sold off and housing developments have been built, but Cissel and his wife Susan still own the house, 60 acres and at least a dozen other historical buildings on the land. The house is furnished with antiques and about 15 years ago he spent 19 months restoring the house to the way it looked in its early years. He said being in the old great house as a child and hearing the stories of old days is what fed his interest in being an historian.
His early education on St. Croix consisted of going to Catholic schools – first St. Mary's than St. Patrick's. He says, "Back then, Catholic schools were the place you went for a quality education, ahh, but the discipline was tough."
He attended the College of the Virgin Islands for a couple of years, but he did not immediately get a degree. He spent time taking care of his ailing grandmother.
Oddly enough, this man with Christianity at the center of his life, when he chose to finish his degree work, he chose to go to Brigham Young. He says the choice was simple. He knew Brigham Young was a school where he could get a good education. He says there was an ongoing effort to convert him and he did become a bit of an expert on Mormons, but they never did convert him.
Before he graduated in 1980 he had a job with the V.I. government as assistant curator at the fort in Frederiksted. In 1985, the curator, Robert Brown, died and Cissel became the curator.
However, Cissel's historical interests were broadening, covering all areas of history on the Virgin Islands. When a job opened with the U.S. National Park Service he took that. He was the historian for the parks in Christiansted and on Buck Island. Later, when the federal government purchased land around Salt River, historical studies there fell under his purview also.
Hurricane Hugo destroyed the housing for the National park supervisors. Instead of rebuilding homes for federal managers to come and live on St. Croix, the park service had Cissel and Joel Tutein, the current National Park superintendent, take over all the managerial duties. Cissel says, "I loved it."
His title became Cultural Resources Manager.
Cissel has had severe problems with his back since he was young. The problem has gotten worse recently. Although he still maintains his interest in all things local and historical, his back has forced him into a medical disability leave from his job with the National Park Service.
Looking back on how the island has changed during his lifetime, he sees some good and some bad. He laughs and says, "The only thing good about the good old days was that you don't have to live them anymore."
He says that progress has improved the standard of living for most Virgin Islanders. But, he adds, he doesn't see the civil behavior he remembers from the 50s and 60s. He says all people then, no matter what their social status, treated each other with respect.
He takes a historical perspective when looking at the future of St. Croix. He says, "We have had our periods of decline and our periods of prosperity. Recently, we have had more than our share of decline. Let's hope it is now time for prosperity."
He says he has had many highlights in his life. He has given park tours to two Secretaries of the Interior, Senators and Congressmen. He says, "I appreciated all of it."
One of the most satisfying jobs he found was one he did for no pay. After Hugo, he oversaw the restoration of St. John's Church. The church lost half of its roof and a piece of corrugated metal had smashed through its stained glass window, the largest stained glass window in the Virgin Islands. He was at the church the morning after the storm picking up fragments of glass with other parishioners. He found that the only piece that was not smashed was the face of Christ.
He says that one can't tell the difference from the restored window and the one that was put up in 1854.
He says, "We thought we could never bring that window back, but we did."

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