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On Island Profile: Eleanor Gibney


Jan. 21, 2008 — Eleanor Gibney long had an interest in St. John's natural history, but it was her friendships with some of the island's most knowledgeable historians that sparked her curiosity about the island's human history.
Gibney currently serves as the president of the St. John Historical Society, a group interested in gathering historical information about the island, developing archives and some day, a museum.
She said that she often hiked with the late Steve Edwards, who was one of the island's most knowledgeable historians. Gibney also counted historians Florence and Walter Lewishon and Lito Valls among her friends. All contributed greatly to uncovering St. John's history.
She said she also includes historian David Knight among her friends, but said she continues to marvel at what she learns from him.
"He's been a great inspiration," she said.
She said that in the 1960s what was known about the island's history was often inaccurate. "When I was growing up here there was almost no information," she said.
Gibney has a particular interest in St. John history from just after emancipation in 1848 to 1950, a period that saw the development of St. John as a community.
"That was despite or maybe because of the hardship and poverty," she said.
Born on the mainland in 1958, Gibney came home to St. John when she was just a few weeks old. Her parents, Nancy and Robert Gibney had moved to the island in 1946, building the house at Hawksnest Bay where Gibney and her two children, Alex, 11, and Amelia, 5, live.
She said it was an idyllic childhood, growing up next to the sea.
"There was a great sense of total security," she said.
She said she and her brothers, Ed Gibney and the late John Gibney, roamed the island, disappearing for an entire day as they explored the landscape that surrounded their home.
Gibney is passing along her love of the island to her children. She and Alex have set out to walk entirely around St. John's, though she said in some places it was easier to swim that scramble over the rocks.
"We've walked around 95 percent of the circumference," she said.
Gibney said that while the North Shore and Centerline Roads were paved when she was still a small child, more distant parts of the island were reached only on unpaved roads.
"It was a big event to go to Lameshur or the East End," she said, a journey only accomplished in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Always interested in the island's natural history, Gibney worked 16 years at Caneel Bay Resort in the grounds department, a job that she said became her life. She said the post took her around the Caribbean, the Pacific and other far-flung destinations in her quest to collect seeds.
In the early years, she propagated species for the hotel's gardens, but over time that changed, she said. After leaving Caneel, she worked on contract for various national organizations that had natural history projects on St. John, until her kids came along.
She made a foray into the business world, briefly selling V.I. memorabilia from the corner of a St. John shop. She said that if the right location came along, she might consider doing that again since it gives her a chance to indulge her collecting nature.
Gibney has seen many changes come to St. John, not all of them positive. However, weighing in on the island's explosive development, she said that perhaps the economic downturn on the mainland may give St. John some breathing space.
She also wondered aloud that in light of global warming, conspicuous consumers who own big St. John villas, drive gas-guzzling SUVs and drip irrigate their vegetation may think twice. She said that those people with drip irrigators must buy desalinated water from the V.I. Water and Power and Authority that is made using Venezuelan oil.
While she still loves St. John as much as she always did, she likes to spend part of the summer in Maine. "I like New England, but I don't like the climate," she said.
As for her life in 10 years?
"Well, I won't be president of the Historical Society. I'm not president for life," she said, laughing.
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