The passing of Ruth E. Thomas, as with other important people in our lives, generates many emotions in us as we remember and celebrate their lives.
It is the same for me and many in the community shared by the both Virgin Islands. I would like to share a tribute and hope all will reflect on what it means to have standards, and make some modest sacrifices for the betterment of our community.
Aunt Ruth was one of the Grand Ladies of the Hill, a small community of people started when she decided to purchase land on a hill in what was then in “the country” at Lindbergh Bay. Her motivation, as I understand it, was a retreat from town, a place where crops could be grown, and a cow or two, including the one whose name I can remember — Lagard — could be put out to pasture. There was no community there when she bought the land even she did not live there, but eventually one would grow with her at its center.
Other participants in the initial purchase included her mother, Aunt Dina; her aunt and my grandmother, Ella; and her first cousin and my mother, Harriet. Others joined the community through familial ties to Aunt Ruth, including the Gottliebs and the Johns. Houses were built, children were born, home — a place centering us all — was established, and standards were set. Aunt Ruth called it Mount Welcome, a name that can be seen in old telephone books as the address, in honor of her stepfather’s St. Croix birthplace.
We know this great lady in many guises as student, alumna, teacher, principal and trustee; as cousin, aunt or family; as St. Thomian, BVI Belonger (a status finally granted) and American; as writer, editorialist and community activist; and as godmother and congregant. I knew her in many of those roles, but primarily as Aunt Ruth, the proper way to address my mother’s respected first cousin.
Through my teenage years, our relationship was characterized by irritation with her apparent sternness, alongside the exasperation with being told how I was related to visitors to her home or at school. Occasional rebellion was included.
My appreciation for her grew after leaving the island for college with the obligatory visits to say “hello” and “so long.” I still appreciate the tarts and the familiarity of her home, especially at Christmastime, which made me feel at home. I appreciate the family connections she happily shared. I appreciate her considered views of the islands, the many episodes of “Sound Off” she delivered.
This brings me to one of the most poignant discussions we had about 10 years ago. During one of my visits with her, I provided my continuing criticism of our beautiful Virgin Islands with its many faults. She said two important things, as a matter of fact and without great emotion, but that still strike me in the heart: Firstly, criticizing the Virgin Islands from afar without participating in its improvement locally was selfish. Secondly, that our foremothers and forefathers would be very disappointed by the progress we have made as a people given the sacrifices they made for us.
Aunt Ruth explained the options she had on finishing college and her conscious decision to return. Though I had known her my whole life, only then did I truly appreciate her deep love for the Virgin Islands, a love which burnished her glow.
The devastation wrought by hurricanes Irma and Maria on Aunt Ruth’s Mount Welcome home and her move away from it left me unmoored. With her passing, and despite the hours of conversation we shared, I feel an infinite loss. Let us honor this Grand Lady by continually improving our islands, our community.
May she rest in blessed eternal peace.
— Steven Smith, Washington, D.C.
Editor’s note: Ruth E. Thomas passed away on Nov. 23 at the age of 94. Respects were paid on Sunday, Dec. 13, at the Ruth E. Thomas Auditorium at Charlotte Amalie High School on St. Thomas. On Monday, Dec. 14, she was eulogized in a private ceremony at Christchurch Methodist and interred in Western Cemetery.
She is survived by her adopted children, Juel T. R. Molloy, Athniel “Addie” Ottley and Winton Turnbull; niece, Kaija; nephews, Calvin and Kaj Gottlieb; and many godchildren, members of the Thomas-Skelton-Stout and Penn families and valued friends too numerous to mention.
Contributions can be made to Charlotte Amalie High School for the Ruth E. Thomas Scholarship.