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On Island Profile: Eddie Bruce


Feb. 12, 2007 — The term renaissance man aptly describes St. John resident Eddie Bruce.
"I'm an information junkie," he says.
Known around the island for his drumming prowess and his 20 years as a teacher at Julius E. Sprauve Elementary School, Bruce has now segued his teaching abilities into a retirement career teaching Chinese.
"It sounds so different and exotic," he says of the language.
Bruce says he planned to go to China his entire life. He's spent the last two summers teaching English as second language in Beijing and Shanghai, and will go again this summer. Closer to home, he will teach Chinese at schools in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
His job in China includes teaching students already proficient in writing English how to speak the language, Bruce says.
In a far-reaching conversation, Bruce weighed in on problems in Africa, the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, his early awareness that he was a natural-born teacher and his ability to connect with the Sprauve School students.
Thanks to his Aries astrological sign, Bruce says, he has plenty of energy for all his endeavors.
"I have Aries in five houses and a moon in Aquarius," he explains. "It all means fire and fuel."
Bruce, 65, got to this point in his life by a rather circuitous route. Headed down the wrong path in his native St. Paul, Minn., and on his way to jail for drugs and interstate-commerce violations, Bruce opted instead for the U.S. Navy.
"I was a two-time loser ,and I was going to jail for 20 years," he says.
His "six years, 11 months and 23 days" in the Navy turned his life around, Bruce says. He volunteered for submarine duty, signing up for every school possible to get what he views as a million-dollar education. The school doors opened for him because he was one of only a few black men on submarines, he says. The extra $85 a month he got for submarine duty and the fact that he got to travel sweetened the pie.
After getting out of the Navy in 1966, he met his wife of 40 years, Martha Bruce, at a party in Portland, Maine. It turned out the two lived a block apart in New York. He soon began another phase of his education at Columbia University in Manhattan. He graduated in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with course work that included German and Chinese.
Since Bruce knew he couldn't earn a living with his degree, he moved into teaching. His first job was teaching music at a public school in Harlem, with a job teaching music therapy at the Bronx State Children's Psychiatric Hospital coming next.
His wife came to St. John in 1974 to do testing for the Volunteers in Service to America program, better known as VISTA. Her week-long job turned into two, and she called home to tell Bruce he just had to see the island.
"We moved back six weeks later," he says.
After two years as director of the Cruz Bay Day Care Center, he became the first special-education teacher at Sprauve. He retired in June 1995, but still volunteers and substitute teaches at the school.
Bruce says he comes from a musical family, but knew early on that the life of a full-time professional musician wasn't in the cards. Instead, he's used that talent to play with the Echo People, a drumming group often seen at St. John functions. He also plays with Samba Combo at night spots across St. John and St. Thomas. A multi-talented musician, Bruce also plays the guitar, piano, flute, saxophone and vibraharp.
Now he's teaching himself to play the two-string Chinese violin called the erhu.
Bruce is a busy man, with most of his free time spent with his family. Daughter Bosede and son Abioseh live on St. John. Daughter Dawn is in Morristown, N.J., and four of Bruce's seven grandchildren are also on St. John.
"Since my grandchildren are here, I don't have any spare time," he says, laughing.
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