Oct. 11, 2005 Sometimes you run across someone whose accomplishments seem just too staggering to be true. And sometimes, they are. Then again
Vernelle de Lagarde says she learned early lessons about life from her grandmother, Lucy Smith-Prince, better known as St. John's beloved "Miss Lucy." De Lagarde grew up on St. John under her famous grandmother's tutelage.
De Lagarde says, "I learned about all sorts of people riding around in her taxi with a goat horn on the car and flowers everywhere, and the hibiscus tucked behind her ear. We met continentals, visitors, local people." She reflects, "I remember when Bob Moss had his radio show, he would always close saying, 'Good night, Miss Lucy, wherever you are'."
Today the grown-up de Lagarde entertains a visitor. She stands tall, appearing taller than her 5'8", but that is without shoes. "I always wear heels," she says. She has a commanding presence, which could be intimidating, were she not so gracious. "Welcome," says the St. Thomas-St. John American Federation of Teachers' first elected female president. "Come, meet everybody." She introduces her two-woman staff Jocelyn Crawford and Nestra Lawrence.
De Lagarde doesn't stand on ceremony. Often, she answers the office phones. "I'm not above answering phones when we're busy," she says. She is accessible to the press, an uncommon trait in many V.I. officials. "I talk to the press; I tell them what I have to say," she says. "And I tell them, 'Don't misquote me'."
De Lagarde never appears to have a hair out of place, not a wrinkle anywhere. Her demeanor is elegant, jewelry on every hand. She usually wears a hat. "I'm a hat person," she says. "Should I wear one for the picture?" We decide not.
Reflecting on her childhood, de Lagarde says, "At first, I thought I wanted to be a nurse. But, after I moved to St. Thomas and began caring for my younger brothers and sisters, I realized I loved teaching. I was a top student in elementary school."
After attending elementary school on St. John, she entered Charlotte Amalie High School after moving to St. Thomas, where she graduated in 1968.
She entered what was then the College of the Virgin Islands (now UVI), where she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in elementary education in 1972. After marrying Edouard de Lagarde, they moved to Atlanta in 1973, where Vernelle received her masters degree in education from Atlanta University in 1974. She is working toward a doctoral degree from Michigan State University and the University of Connecticut.
Right now de Lagarde is enjoying a victory. After months of negotiations and contract breakdowns, the AFT on Oct. 2 ratified a new contract which was overwhelmingly approved by members in both districts. The contract adds $8.5 million to union salaries.
It awards a one-time incentive of $2.5 million, giving members around $1,200 each in lieu of salary increases for the 2004-2005 contract year. Since that time, the Legislature has approved $12.5 million for the teachers' raises.
"It's a good feeling to know the raises are funded," de Lagarde says, "but we are going to continue to follow through until the increases become a reality."
De Lagarde's office is severe, as is her dress. "I dress professionally," she says. "For the job, I love suits or pant suits. You will rarely see me in slacks and a top." Except, that is, when she is on the picket line defending the teachers' interests in her AFT T-shirt. She says, "Then I have to show the AFT cause."
And jewelry. De Lagarde literally sparkles, with gold rings covering all fingers, bracelets and a necklace or two. "As a little girl, my mom always gave everyone jewelry and watches. We shared everything, hats and accessories, everything but clothes because we came in different sizes."
De Lagarde is the eldest of Eloise V. Francis Hendricks and Peter C. Francis Sr.'s nine children. She has been married to Edouard de Lagarde, who works in the office of Delegate Donna M. Christensen, for 32 years. They have three grown children Kwanza, 29; Khalid, 25; and Khadija, 20.
Her office is decorated with plaques and photographs of AFT members, including a piece of relatively recent history a framed photo of Arthur Richards, Rudolph Krigger, Hugo Dennis and Rueben Wheatley signing the first AFT charter in 1968. There is a color picture of Glen Smith handing over the reins of the AFT presidency in 2001.
De Lagarde considers her present job an extension of her teaching career. "Basically," she says, "I like people, and I look at this job as what I did in the classroom for years."
She taught at Dober Elementary School from 1972 to 1975, moving to Emanuel Benjamin Oliver School, where she stayed until 2001 after assuming the reins of the AFT presidency.
She taught grades one to six, bringing her curiosity and intelligence to bear on teaching methods. "You have to find innovative ways to get children thinking," she says. "For instance, "she says, "I told the principal at EBO that I needed an overhead projector. And that became one of my major tools, using transparencies and a series of slides. In time, the kids learned to use the projector themselves."
To say that de Lagarde is active in community affairs is like commenting that the sky is blue. The lists of her professional involvements, membership in social and civic organizations and the recognitions she has received are practically endless. Below is the tip of the iceberg:
De Lagarde is listed in Who's Who Among America's Teachers in 2000; Outstanding Lion's Club president (Region II) in 1992-93; the AFT Feddy award in 1991 in the family and education categories; and she was the Business and Professional Women's Organization "Woman of the Year" in 2002.
She belongs to or has held positions in 11 professional organizations, is a past president of the St. Thomas East End Lion's Club, and is past president and active member of the Advocates for the Preservation of our Retirement System.
And de Lagarde is a long-time member of the Jesters Carnival troupe, and the Party-Hardy Caroliers. In fact, she can always be seen Christmas morning at Emancipation Garden finishing up a night of caroling.
As we are about to depart, she looks into another office, and, at second thought, invites us in. We have entered another world. "This is my home away from home," she says.
The walls are covered in pictures of family and friends. A couple of colorful tourism promotion balloons are suspended from the ceiling. Greeting cards hang from a shelf. "These are cards from the time I took office." She looks at a bouquet of now dried flowers. "This is from my family the card says 'We know you will do a knock out job'."
The far wall is covered by a large piece of fabric. "I got so sick of looking at these walls. They are so awful, that I covered it with this African material." (De Lagarde's office is on the third floor of the aging Water and Power building in the Sub Base.)
There is a large poster of Martin Luther King Jr. "I always followed Dr. King. At school I was known as 'Mrs. King.' I did an MLK program every year."
She pauses now. "This is my shrine to my little sister," indicating a wall filled with memories of Gail Luella Francis, who died suddenly in 2003 at the age of 48. Francis was also a well known, active member of the community. She had worked for the Tourism Department for years as assistant to the commissioner.
Though the walls are filled with various awards, she favors her "family corner." There is a picture of her children, in younger days. "They grew up with the union," she says. "They were always in marches."
De Lagarde isn't inclined to discuss what her future will be in 2007, when her tenure as AFT president is over, but she knows what her goals are. "I am not far removed from teaching," she says. "I would like to see each year a smooth opening of the schools, supplies in place, maintenance work completed, a new contract negotiated. Teachers are on the negotiating team, and now we have to pull them out of school for the negotiations."
We bid good bye, hoping we have quoted her accurately. She poses for a picture in the homey and less imposing room.
She smiles, "Call me any time, if you have questions. I am available."
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