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On Island Profile: Austin 'Babe' Monsanto

April 11, 2005 – Austin "Babe"Monsanto is a lanky 79-year-old. He is courtly; he has aged well. And he is happy to share some of the St. Thomas history he has absorbed in all those years.
Sitting by the window of a waterfront restaurant, the graying Monsanto stretches his six foot four frame into a comfortable position, gazing out over Charlotte Amalie harbor, a site with which he is intimate.
Anyone who had anything to do with the marine industry in the 1970s and '80s knows Monsanto, who was marine director for the V. I. Port Authority, even before it was called the Port Authority.
At first he seems a little hesitant about our interview. "Well," he says, "where should I begin?" A Charlotte Amalie childhood seems about as fine a start as any, and Monsanto instantly lights up as he recalls growing up on a very different St. Thomas.
His recollections give testimony to Hilary Clinton's mantra – "It takes a village to raise a child."
"We had no trouble when we were growing up," Monsanto says, "because the village, the people in the village, cared for us. When we did anything wrong, the news got home before we did. We didn't have telephones, but the news got there."
He recalled one of his favorite pastimes, diving off an old barge called the Pontoon in Long Bay, back before even the first Yacht Haven Hotel was built.
"We had a great time," Monsanto says. "The water out there was very, very deep, and we'd dive off of the barge. And when I got home, I'd get a good spanking."
Monsanto, one of nine children, recalls warmly, "We were poor, but we were happy. There was no crime. My parents worked hard. My mother was a nurse, and my father was in construction. We had to look after ourselves, and the neighbors would keep an eye on us."
Squaring his shoulders, Monsanto proudly lists one of his first childhood accomplishments. "I was a member of the first Cub Scout pack in the Virgin Islands, along with Larry Bryan, Victor Daniel and Gerry Nicholson. Dr. Warren Smith was our Scoutmaster." Smith, a well-known Virgin Islander, was an early leader in the V.I. health field, serving as commissioner, as well as being a minister.
Monsanto, literally, went to high school "all over the place." "We didn't have one place for high school then," he says, that would be the late '40s. After attending Jefferson Elementary School, (now J. Antonio Jarvis), Monsanto continued to his peripatetic high school classes.
"Some classes were in the old Barracks Building, now the Legislature; some were in what's now the Education building on Roosevelt Park; some were in the Lutheran Hall; and we played sports at the ball field, now Lionel Roberts Stadium," Monsanto says. "We walked all over – there was no traffic – and we always got to class on time."
He continues, "And we didn't have teachers with degrees. The teachers would graduate in June and begin teaching in September of that same year. They were dedicated – the degrees weren't a big issue. Teachers and nurses were the most respected women in the community."
When the draft came in World War II, Monsanto volunteered. "I wasn't quite 18, in the 10th grade. I was sent to Puerto Rico, and I got a degree at night school there.
"Later, I joined the Advanced ROTC, and I got a commission in 1951. I was called up to the 44th Anti-aircraft and sent to Texas to train," he says, "and then we were sent to Korea."
Monsanto had one word for his Korea experience. "It was hell," he says. "Once we were being strafed and I hid under a truck. It turned out it was a gas truck. If it'd been hit, I'd have been blown to pieces."
With the Korean conflict under his belt, Monsanto did put his GI Bill to use. He married Alda Schulterbrandt in the early '50s and both went to the states to complete their education. "Alda got a degree in social welfare from the Columbia School of Social Work," Monsanto says, "and I got a bachelor's degree in industrial and vocational education at the Hampton Institute in Virginia."
When he returned to St. Thomas, Monsanto began teaching industrial arts at his alma mater, Charlotte Amalie High School, only the school was now consolidated under one roof. "Everybody helped with the move," Monsanto says. "There was none of this 'It's not my job, man' attitude. Public Works pitched in and used its trucks, and we moved in. We had very small classes, so we had good relationships with the students."
After teaching from 1955 to 1958, Monsanto's career took an abrupt change. "Howard Hubler, National Park Service superintendent, came to me and he said 'You're going to be a park ranger, whether you like it or not. We need someone to bridge the gap.'"
That was in 1959. "I was the first Virgin Islander to become a ranger," he says. "They sent me to Yosemite Park in California for training, where I was the first black ranger. Then, when I came back, I worked with Chief Ranger Vincent Marazek and David Karaker, and between the three of us, we got things going."
Some of the "things," they got going are known to anyone who has snorkeled at St. John's Trunk Bay. "We marked the trail there. We identified all the plant and animal life, with descriptions in glass boxes, which we had to wash off those boxes every morning."
Though Monsanto loved his ranger work, he says, "I was told I couldn't advance in the park service unless I moved to the states. Alda had a good job, and we had two children by then, and we had just bought a home, so it wasn't a good time to leave." The Monsantos have three children – a girl and two boys: Trovere, 49; Stephen, 47, and Edwin 45.
After a stint with Environmental Health working on the Aedes egypti mosquito eradication program, Monsanto's career took another turn, this time into the marine industry, where he would make his mark.
"When I first went to work in 1969, it wasn't called the Port Authority; it was the V. I. Airport Industrial Resource Agency," Monsanto recalls. "The name was changed under Gov. Ralph Paiewonsky. I remember Alton Adams, our deputy executive director, had me take the name-change papers up to Government House, myself."
Monsanto was named marine manager of the new Virgin Islands Port Authority. "There are so many memories, so many things happened, it's hard to remember them all," he says. "The most exciting event, by far, is easy to remember, when the Costa Cruise Lines Angelina Lauro, went down in flames. She was tied up at the West Indian dock, and I was in the rescue boat. We were rescuing people all night. I'll never forget that experience."
Many who were living on the island at the time will remember the incident. Broadcaster Lee Carle, of WSTA, gained a bit of infamy when he refused to leave the scene and was arrested (though he later was released). The ship burned from a galley fire. When she was subsequently towed to Japan for scrap, she sank in the Pacific.
"Probably our most satisfying accomplishment," Monsanto says, "was seeing Crown Bay open as a tourist facility." That was long before today's Crown Bay Development, but it improved the old Crown Bay docks to allow cruise ships to tie up.
After retiring from VIPA in 1984, Monsanto says, "I wanted to be on the VIPA board, but there were people on the board who had different ideas, so that didn't happen."
However, Gov. Juan Luis appointed Monsanto to the Coastal Zone Management Commission in 1985, a post he still holds. During his tenure, the island has seen many new developments, not all of which have resonated well with environmentalists in the community – notably the Botany Bay development – along with some that have.
The longest sta
nding member of the CZM Commission, Monsanto is chairman of the St. Thomas district committee. He was the only member re-appointed to the CZM Commission in 2000 by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
Monsanto counts the current Crown Bay development as one of committee's "most satisfying" approvals. "Yacht Haven impresses me also, with the way they're working – very little noise, very little pollution," he says.
Monsanto spearheaded the Red Cross blood drives from 1985 to 1995 at the USO's waterfront location, as head of the USO council. "We'd meet our goals, 1,000 pints," he says.
His accolades for community involvement are too vast to list. To name a couple, he's been the recipient of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce Community Service award; and has twice received the prestigious Rotary Paul Harris Community Service award.
And, when he isn't doing anything else, Monsanto tends to his hibiscus. An active member of the St. Thomas chapter of the Hibiscus Society, he takes a great pride in growing his hybrids, and he has walked off with many prizes. At the mention of the flowers, the courtly gentleman appears. "Would you like a flower?" he smiles, "I would love to bring you one."

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