Jan. 7, 2002 – Surrounded by family, longtime friends and former students, Virgin Island artist and teacher Aline Kean celebrated her 100th birthday Saturday afternoon at Villa Santana on Denmark Hill.
Kean, who to this day still paints and makes crafts, said the key to long life is loving what you do.
One of 12 children born to St. Thomas businessman Orville Sidney Kean and seamstress Robertina Petersen Kean, Aline followed the paths of her elder sisters Eudora, a math teacher, and Adina, a home economics teacher.
Aline — who pronounces her name "Allen," — began her career as a student teacher at Miss Vessup's school on Vester Gade. In 1921, she became an assistant teacher at George Washington School, now Evelyn Marcelli School. Over the next decade, she moved up the ranks to principal teacher and acting principal of the school.
In 1931, Kean earned a government scholarship to attend Hampton Institute in Virginia. A year later, she transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in art and minored in education. Upon graduation from Howard, she returned home to teach art at Charlotte Amalie High School, then located on Commandant Gade.
Kean often speaks of the scarcity of art supplies in those years, and how she taught students to recycle materials such as egg crates and cans to create works of art. In 1936, she was promoted to art supervisor, overseeing the art programs at elementary schools throughout the Virgin Islands.
She took a leave of absence in 1945 to pursue graduate studies in art at New York University in New York City. She returned to St. Thomas with a master's degree the following year and introduced the concept of correlating art and social studies in the elementary schools. In 1966, she was named the territory's federal Title I coordinator, a position that allowed her to help other teachers get teaching degrees at the College of the Virgin Islands.
Kean retired from the public school system in 1971 after 50 years of service. After that, she taught art at Lutheran Parish School for a number of years. And she continued to teach gifted art students at her home until recently.
Throughout her teaching career, Kean was active in the community and in her church, Frederick Evangelical Lutheran. She was a member of the American Red Cross, the Business and Professional Women, the St. Thomas Historic Trust and the Friends of Denmark and served as an art consultant to the Girl Scouts.
She is the only living charter member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Ladies Aid Society. As a member of this group she designed and made the pastors' stoles as well as decorations for the church, and helped establish an annual Carol Sing to cheer the sick and homebound at the Christmas holidays.
She also has hosted, for as long as most attendees can recall, an annual Carol Sing on the first Sunday of Advent in the historic Catherineberg home she shares with her sisters Eliza, 97, a retired nurse, and Louise, 96, who also is an artist. The only exception, according to a longtime participant, was a year when she traveled to Puerto Rico for a niece's wedding.
At her party on Saturday, Kean was treated to a surprise performance by the Lutheran Church Youth Choir. After spending the day singing to the homebound, the young people stopped by to sing "Happy Birthday" to her.
Another surprise came from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, who in a message declared Jan. 5 "Aline M. Kean Day" in the territory. He also pledged a gift of $2,000 to the Art Department of Ivanna Eudora Kean High School in her honor. Turnbull, who was one of Kean's students, later worked with her when he was commissioner of Education. Family representative Carlito Kean also presented a gift of $3,500 to the school in his aunt's honor.
At her party, held at the home of her niece, Luisa Euwema, Kean kept another tradition intact as she gave her guests hand-crafted souvenir gifts. Last year, she painted faces on cashew seeds, covered the tops with cloth head wraps and then glued the heads to corks to make decorative bottle stoppers. This year, she used tiny shells to make floral designs on thank-you cards.
When asked what drew her initially to art, Kean responded by describing the beauty and detail of what she saw when she put on her first pair of eyeglasses. She suffered from poor eyesight as a child and, until eyeglasses were available on the island, she viewed everything around her in a blur.
Despite having seen the world from Europe to Asia to Africa, Kean says there is no place more beautiful than her beloved Virgin Islands. She often stands on her porch at the home where she has lived for nearly a century and is still amazed by the beauty of the harbor, the different colors of the sea, the complex formations of the clouds, and a favorite subject of her paintings, the setting of the sun.
Editor's note: Source contributor Allegra Kean is the grand-niece of Aline Kean.