Nov. 7, 2005 June Bell Barlas is one of a diminishing number of characters that arrived from the mainland back when moving to St. John was a big adventure.
In 1971 when then Bell arrived, people did whatever they could to make a living. The power went out regularly, the phones were iffy and food supplies were basic.
Barlas, 72, retired last year after seven years at the helm of her most recent venture the St. John Times. For now, she's happy to stay home, read books, and think about what she might do next.
Born in Cambridge, Mass. to Scottish immigrants, she went to work as a paper pusher at a Boston insurance company right out of high school. Married at 22, with her two children coming along soon after, she and her family trekked off to Venezuela so her husband could work in the oil industry.
Not one to let grass grow under her feet, she soon opened a day care center in Venezuela.
After 11 years of marriage, she and her husband split up. A single mother with two children, she returned to more lucrative work.
A public relations job sent her to Puerto Rico. While living there, she and co-worker Susan Larsen first laid eyes on St. John thanks to another co-worker, Susan Safer. Safer was a congressman's daughter. She invited her friends on a trip to St. John.
"Of course, I fell in love with the island as everyone does on a first visit," Barlas said.
Barlas soon got a job working at Julius E. Sprauve's summer school for Bill Lomax, who later served as the island's administrator.
When summer ended, Barlas signed on with Doris Jadan's Environmental Studies Program. While her main job was in the office, she also got to go on trips with Jadan and the students.
Itching to do something on her own, Barlas cut a deal with Malvene Sewer to rent Sewer's Accommodation Inn.
Located in the building that now houses the St. John Inn, it also had apartments and a shop, Uhuru.
Barlas said she still has friends who stayed at the Inn, which is what she renamed it. Indeed, the Inn was quite the place to go in the mid 1970s, with people like Carly Powell playing his portable organ, and now Sen. Roosevelt David on hand for fun.
She said that in those days St. John was more democratic, with relationships based on how good a story you could tell and your sense of humor.
"It didn't have anything to do with money or prestige or color," she said in a recent interview.
After Sewer's family decided to raise her rent, Barlas went to work for Sis Frank and Peter Griffith at Holiday Homes. Griffith, who died a few years back, was movie star Melanie Griffith's father.
After her children told her they weren't learning much at Sprauve School, Barlas started her own school with her children, two of Griffith's children and a scholarship student who lived at the Baptist Church's Boy's Ranch off Centerline Road as the pupils.
While these were the fun days, there were some down times. Barlas and Toni Oppenheimer, who also worked at Holiday Homes and whose father was Robert Oppenheimer of atomic bomb fame, decided to open a bar called the Out, located where Mongoose Junction now stands. Just 13 days after the Old Year's Night grand opening, Toni Oppenheimer committed suicide at her Hawksnest home.
"It was one of the most difficult times of my life," Barlas said.
Barlas operated the Out until 1980.
Enter Bill Shaw, who soon became Barlas' partner in life as well as at the Tradewinds newspaper, which Barlas bought. Shaw took over the newspaper duties while Barlas worked at the Battery for then Administrator Noble Samuel.
When work began on the Virgin Grand Hotel, later the Hyatt Regency Hotel and now the Westin Resort, near where Barlas lived, the noise and mosquitoes made her long for cooler climates. She sold Tradewinds to Don Oat and moved with Shaw in 1986 to Maine. After two years there, they moved on to Maui, where Barlas lived with Shaw until his death in April 1996.
After returning to St. John in November 1996, she started St. John Times in April 1997.
She likes her modest lifestyle, a far cry from the more monied path taken by many of the latest wave of mainlanders to hit St. John.
"People say it's happening everywhere, but everywhere is not a special place like St. John," she said.
She's tied to the island because her son, Andrew, his wife Lori, and their children Andrew, 10, and Benjamin, 3, live on St. John. Son Morgan is now a manager for financial management firm in Boston.
Looking back on her life, she calls it wonderful with no regrets.
Would she do it all over?
"Most of it," she said, laughing.
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