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HomeNewsArchivesHistorian, Businessman Isidor Paiewonsky Dead at 95

Historian, Businessman Isidor Paiewonsky Dead at 95

Dec. 6, 2004 – Isidor Paiewonsky, historian, author, publisher, businessman, the premier chronicler of Virgin Islands history, died at the Roy L. Schneider Hospital at noon Monday. He was 95.
Though the territory lost one of its most noted voices, Paiewonsky's legacy will live on in his writings, in his philanthropical deeds, and in the memories of the countless lives he touched. Many of those he touched, shared recollections Monday, some sadly, some with a little humor, but all with the deep respect that comes from knowing one who has been called "a giant."
He lived his life with his wife Charlotte in their home on Blackbeard's Hill, where they raised their family. At his 90th birthday celebration in 1999, Paiewonsky said the house, richly steeped in history, was at least twice as old as himself. The house is just a short walk from his birthplace on Synagogue Hill — literally down one hill and up the other.
Lifelong friend Dr. Alfred Heath, who had attended Paiewonsky Monday, shared some memories. Heath said he has known Paiewonsky since his father worked as a pharmacist in Paiewonsky' pharmacy when Heath was a child.
Speaking softly and carefully, Heath thought back to those days. "From the time I was a kid, I've always learned something from him. He was brilliant. He could discuss anything, and when you leave him, you've always learned something. He had a way of teaching. He was self-trained.
"The Virgin Islands has lost a nobleman, one of great stature. He was a historian, an author, but most of all he was a friend of my family. My mom and dad worked for his family … we were very close."
Heath was feeling the effects of his friend's demise a few short hours before. He had just come from visiting Charlotte. He said. "I speak from the heart, for someone I've known almost all my life. I was almost part of the family. They always treated you like a human being. They have always been liberal in their views toward all races and creeds. I lost my mother 18 months ago, so it's like déjà vu, like a resurfacing of emotions."
He concluded, "He had so much to give. He wrote those columns in the newspaper in a way that was understandable to most people. He wrote them week after week, so dedicated, and they were so accurate. He did his research well. I been given copies of books he has written that he has signed personally. He was the V.I. Historian – he will be missed greatly."
Preservationist Edith Woods, who herself has chronicled much of the history of St. Thomas buildings, said Monday, "We have lost a good person. I wish he had put all those articles in a book. I kept asking him why he didn't do that, and he said he was working on it." Woods writes columns on the island's architectural history in The V.I. Daily News.
"I have saved copies of all his articles over the years, from the 70s. They have helped me in my research. He has been very generous to me. I'm so sorry to hear the news."
Woods has early memories of Paiewonsky. "He was a good friend of my father's, Percy de Jongh. They went to convent school together in what's now the Education Department building in Roosevelt Park."
She said her most vivid memory of Paiewonsky was walking on the West Indian Co. dock. "I used to go there years ago to walk with my husband. We would always see him there. He would walk the dock several times, stop to chat and then keep walking. He must have been in his eighties then.
"I had a lot of respect for him," Woods said. "I am sad."
The community's political leaders were anxious to extend condolences. One after another, they came tumbling out all afternoon. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and acting governor Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards issued statements lauding Paiewonsky's business acumen as well as his more scholarly pursuits.
Turnbull said, "We sadly mourn the passing of one of the giants of the 20th century who played a great role in the emergence of the Virgin Islands into a major tourist destination." He called Paiewonsky, "A humanitarian businessman who used his energies and resources to better the lives of the people of the territory and promote regional commerce."
Richards said, "Paiewonsky had a passionate love for the Virgin Islands and its people. He believed that strong steps should be taken to safeguard the open spaces of the territory through balanced growth and careful preservation." One of those efforts succeeded in stopping the building of an airport on concrete pads over the lagoon on the east end of St. Thomas.
Both Turnbull and Richards extended condolences to the family.
Sen. Roosevelt David, caught by surprise with the news of Paiwonsky's death, said "I really want to extend my condolences to his family. I know very well of his invaluable contribution to the Virgin Islands in just about any field imaginable. It's very hard to match.
"There is no question that he was the leading V.I. historian. He had a wealth of knowledge. The V.I. is certainly a better place because he was here for a time."
Sen. Lorraine Berry said in a statement late Monday afternoon, "Paiewonsky could honestly be called a 'Renaissance man,' so diverse were his talents as a historian, a poet, a businessman, a horticulturist and, most of all, as a humanitarian of the highest order."
Berry pointed out the present site of the Cyril E. King Airport came about through Paiewonsky's "tireless endeavors which were continually blocked by . . . those who would place it at the East End Lagoon."
She said "Paiewonsky left his mark on the lives of many; not only lovers of history and poetry, but by the many young people whom he coached, trained and mentored in his commercial enterprises."
One of those young people was attorney Paul Hoffman. "Isidor and Charlotte befriended my mother and father in the late 1940s. We have been almost as close as family. Beside all his historical and business interests, he was always interested in kids.
"He was one of the greatest storytellers of all time. When he started to weave one of his tales, by the end you were tightly wrapped up in the fabric of his characters. And it wasn't just the characters of historical people, it was the characters he actually knew. The characters of his own youth were more fascinating."
Hoffman declined to name just who those characters were, but he shed some light on Paiewonsky's own youth. "He would tell about having beetle races in the sand on the Synagogue floor and carving ancient petroglyphs at Botany Bay. He'll be missed by lot of people, not just the historians, but people who just realized how great he was."
Hoffman said, "You can only feel great sorrow, not only for his daughter, but for his grandchildren, and most especially, for Charlotte."
Services for Paiewonsky will be held Thursday at 3 p.m. at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas Synagogue on Crystal Gade in Charlotte Amalie, according to a family member. The Paiewonsky family will issue a statement Tuesday morning with details.
Paiewonsky is survived by his wife, Charlotte; daughter, Avna Cassinelli; grandsons Filippo and Sebastiano Cassinelli and other family members to be named Tuesday. He was predeceased earlier this year by his son Michael.

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