Dear Editor,

At a time when basic government services — public health and electric power distribution — are in crisis, it is well to honor the remarkable Virgin Islander who laid the modern foundations of both services: Pedrito Augustus François

Ped, as he became known to family and friends, was born on Chinaman Hill (Moravian Hill), on St. Thomas in 1921 to Conrad and Eva (Joseph) François. He had a wonderful childhood spending his school years on Frenchman’s Hill with his father’s family and his summers with his mother’s family, the Josephs, on Chinaman Hill. He survived a serious ear infection as an infant that left him with a hearing loss. Also, as a youngster, while playing with a machete at Brewers Bay, he split his left kneecap thereby permanently damaging his leg. He did not let these obstacles deter him from enjoying his youth, and growing up with a close-knit family that included his three brothers, Elmo, Frank and Donald and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

He completed his school years as the valedictorian of the Charlotte Amalie High School class of 1939 and left St. Thomas shortly after to attend Howard University where he graduated cum laude in 1943 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering.

At the time, World War II was well underway and about six months before graduation, a Navy recruiter visited Howard University and informed the entire engineering class (all eight of them) that, upon graduation, they would be working for the Navy.

Ped was assigned to work at the Naval Yard in D.C. on gunnery ignition systems. After two years, he had the chance to go back to St. Thomas to visit his family that he had not seen in six years.

During his visit, Ped discovered that because of ongoing public health issues (e.g. lack of sanitation, many endemic diseases and the lack of potable water), the federal government had established and funded the local position of public health engineer. He arranged to meet with Gov. Morris deCastro, presented his credentials and asked about the possibility of filling it. The Governor agreed and wrote a letter to the Selective Service requesting that he be reassigned to the V.I. as an officer of the Public Health Service (PHS).

The Selective Service approved his reassignment, but the PHS requested that he first obtain a health engineering degree from the University of Minnesota, which had the most highly regarded School of Public Health Science. However, in September 1945, before going to Minnesota, he returned to Washington, D.C. to marry his lifelong partner Gloria Kaufman. They had five children — daughter Leslie and sons Pedrito Emmet, Conrad, Gary and Darryl.

Upon obtaining his health engineering degree in 1947, Ped returned to St. Thomas and began what became the center of his life’s work — improving the health, living conditions and environment of the Virgin Islands. He accepted a position with the government as the territory’s Public Health Engineer, Department of Health Sanitation Service (November 1947 to May 1949) and doubled as the electrical engineer with the new St. Thomas Power Authority.

During his tenure at the Authority, Ped planned and supervised the electrical conversion of the island from 220-volt direct current (DC) to 110-volt alternating current (AC). This required installing new power lines, and transformers islandwide, as well as changing all DC motors in refrigerators and water pumps. He completed the job in May 1949.

At the same time, as the public health engineer, he planned, organized, and directed the V.I.’s first comprehensive environmental sanitation program. His initiative led to the adoption by the 14th Legislative Assembly, on May 12, 1949, of a Uniform Sanitary Code. Ped built a wide-reaching multifaceted public health campaign to combat the following endemic diseases: gastroenteritis, amoebic dysentery, ascariasis, hookworm, dengue fever, malaria, tuberculosis, typhus, typhoid fever, filariasis and schistosomiasis. These diseases, unsafe water supply and poor hygienic conditions were huge contributors to the 50% infant mortality rate that prevailed at the time.

Since the anopheles mosquito — transmitter of malaria and filariasis — had its habitat is stagnant water, the measures he took included locating pools of standing water along the island guts, treating them with a film of kerosene and populating the pools with a small fish that fed on mosquitoes and their larvae.

Additionally, he undertook the task of convincing the many homeowners, who kept a cistern and/or 55-gallon drums to catch and store rain water from their roofs, to treat their precious resource with kerosene.

To combat dengue and yellow fever, transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti, Ped began a comprehensive mosquito spraying and education program across all three islands. And to combat dysentery, he started a campaign to build outdoor latrines and boil water before use.

Schistomaiasis was endemic only to St. Croix because the vector is a small worm that lives in fresh water ponds, which are numerous on that island. Ped instituted a systematic and regular inspection of all the water reservoirs on each island to maintain water quality.

In dealing with typhus, borne by fleas and spread by rats, he initiated a campaign in the town areas to get residents and merchants to install galvanize sheeting on entry doors from the base up to 18 inches, and heavy gauge wire screens over other house openings to stop home invasions. And with tuberculosis, he instituted a monthly monitoring program to ensure that those under quarantine reduced the chance of transmission until prescribed medications brought the disease under control.

Today, in the 21st century, these diseases are no longer common in the VI. The implementation of a proper sewage disposal system and potable water supplies have significantly contributed to the drastic decline of these diseases and infant mortality.

In 1950, Ped and his family moved back to Washington, D.C., where he continued his private practice as an electrical engineer. He also worked for Brisker Electrical Construction Co., followed by a position with the Naval Weapons Plan. In June 1955, he returned to the VI, prompted by a conversation with Gov. Archie Alexander, who noted the need for homegrown talent.

Back on St. Thomas, he joined the Department of Health, serving 19 years as Division of Environmental Health director. Over the course of his public service, he would also head the Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs under the Division of Natural Resources. During that time, he developed the Sanitary Code and the Water Pollution Control Law and Rules and Regulations. He also developed the master sewage system plan for the V.I. and finished construction of this system in both St. Thomas and St. Croix in 1975. St. John’s plan was completed in 1981 when a temporary treatment plant was installed.

As DNR director, he was responsible for environmental control programs in air and water pollution, water supply, noise pollution, pesticides, solid waste and radiation control.

In 1980, he accepted the position of Public Works assistant commissioner where he continued to be responsible for the design and construction of the Waste Water Treatment Plan Program in addition to his other duties until retirement in 1984.

Over his 30-plus years of public service, few individuals other than Pedrito Augustus François can claim to have had a greater impact on the environment and quality of life in the VI that we enjoy today.

He was awarded the Environmental Protection Association Award in 1984 by the U.S. EPA and the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association Gold Award in 2009 for his contributions to the public health of the USVI and the Eastern Caribbean. He was also honored and commended for his contributions to the V.I. in a proclamation from the 20th Legislature in 1994, and subsequently by an act of the 30th Legislature that named the wastewater plant at Red Point, St. Thomas, in his honor.

In his retirement, Ped became a founder of the Caribbean Genealogy Library where he painstakingly developed a library of local family trees to assist Virgin Islanders in search of their roots. He passed away peacefully at his home at Crown & Hawk on Aug. 17, 2020, just eight months shy of his 100th birthday [on April 15]. He left a great legacy as a public servant, a historian and a dedicated family man.

— Aimery Caron, St. Thomas