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On Island Profile: Ruth Moolenaar


Dec. 19, 2005 — Down the hill, strangers are scurrying from cruise ships, wide-eyed with their first look at St. Thomas. Up the road, visitors from around the world pack the territory’s largest hotel. In the street out front, surrey buses and cars create a relentless clog of traffic, choking the island on progress.
Standing in the midst of all this confusion is a rather unassuming dark red masonry West Indian-style home, with a gracious veranda and practical white-trim shutters. The woman opening the screen door and waving in her visitor looks completely at home.
Ruth Moolenaar has lived on St. Thomas for more years than she will tell – though not always in this home in Havensight.
Born at the old St. Thomas Hospital to parents Robert and Adina Richards, she moved to the island’s Upstreet section when she was eight, and did all her growing up there. The neighborhood, basically the eastern portion of Charlotte Amalie, is the subject of Moolenaar’s recently released book, "Legacies of Upstreet: The Transformation of a Virgin Islands Neighborhood."
"That book tells about my life," she said. It also chronicles a bygone era of small-town friendliness. "In the 1950s and '60s and even up to the '70s, there was a warm, secure feeling" about the island, Moolenaar said. "You didn’t hear shouting," she said, and though some people were poor, you couldn’t tell it because they took pride in their appearance. "It was as if you were on a different planet," she said.
Ruth Marie was in high school when her quiet world was rocked the first time. In a small school, in a small place, she knew everyone, including her classmate, Lucien Moolenaar. Then one day the students had a fun assignment: write out favorite song lyrics, and, with no name attached, hand them in to be circulated to the other students. As she read over the anonymous lyrics in her hands, Ruth thought she recognized the handwriting and looked up to see she was right – Lucien was watching her. When their eyes met, they both recognized that they were more than just friends.
The pair married and had three children: Dr. Gwen Marie Moolenaar, former provost at the University of the Virgin Islands and currently assistant principal at Ss. Peter and Paul School; Gwenneth Moolenaar, an attorney in private practice on St. Thomas; and Dr. Lucien Moolenaar II, a dentist and former deputy commissioner of health. After her children were grown, Moolenaar adopted a fourth child, Ingrid Warrington, and raised her from the time she was 10 years old.
Despite the times, Moolenaar was not a stay-at-home mom. On the strength of her high school diploma and extension courses from New York University, she taught school on St. Thomas for about five years. But she said, "you couldn’t survive on the salary you were getting." Teachers with degrees were paid more, and many of her colleagues went to the U.S. mainland to college. She decided to follow.
"My husband was very supportive," she recalls. According to Ruth, Lucien was making good money as a plumbing contractor during a construction boom on St. Thomas when he and one other man were the only available plumbers. "They were always in demand," she said.
Moolenaar earned her bachelor's degree and a master's in educational administration and supervision from Cheyney University in Cheyney, Penn. She had a sister living in New York who took care of her children during the week; on weekends Moolenaar left campus to be with her family.
In 1959, when the Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School opened on St. Thomas, Moolenaar was its first principal. She spent the first few years there splitting her time between the principal’s office and the classroom – "that was the system then," she said – but later was a full-time administrator. The pride in her voice is unmistakable, as she notes that the school still recognizes her on special occasions.
Her influence extends well beyond the school, however.
"My culture was very close to me. My history was very close to me," she said. The education system and the community at large has tapped into that interest many times over the years. Concerned that many public school teachers, especially those from the mainland, knew little or nothing about the Virgin Islands, Moolenaar designed the Project Introspection curriculum for teacher training, which included a look at local plants and animals, as well as V.I. history and customs. She also conducted in-service workshops. She said she found the teachers very receptive, so much so that her materials kept disappearing. Now, she said, she would like to see the books updated.
Moolenaar was also active in V.I. politics. A staunch Democrat, she said, "my appetite was started from the days of [former senator and power-broker] Earle Ottley." In addition to writing the background information for the Fourth Constitutional Convention, Moolenaar successfully ran for a seat on the Eleventh Board of Education and served as its chairman of curriculum development. Most of her political involvement was behind the scenes, rather than in office. "I avidly supported candidates," she said.
Describing herself as "one of the honchos" behind former Gov. Alexander Farrelly, this genteel lady can’t keep back a demure smile at the seemingly incongruous use of "honcho." But make no mistake, she is one, and she knows it.
Like her home, her style is rooted in the past. But Ruth Moolenaar is smack-dab in the present.
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