Feb. 16, 2006 – Under a bright sun, blue sky and amid a blooming garden, Lillia King paused to wipe away an errant tear before speaking of Agnes Agatha Schuster King, her mother and wife of the late Gov. Cyril Emanuel King.
A number of people gathered together Wednesday morning to formally dedicate the First Lady's Garden to former first lady King. The garden is in front of Government House.
Though many words were spoken, Lillia King's were perhaps the most touching as she shed some light on how the garden, healthy and beautiful today, came to be.
"About six weeks after we moved into Government House," she said, "we were getting ready to attend a function, but there was Mommy with her ever-present yellow pad over at the front window taking notes. Daddy and I looked at each other. 'What now?'" we asked.
"'I see the remnants of a small ruin across the street, in that overgrown lot. Tomorrow I will go see what I can find there. I have plans for it,'" King quoted her mother as saying.
"She researched the little plot and found that it used to be used for military band concerts," King said. "I even think our bandmaster Alton Adams conducted here."
Lillia King thanked the many community members who over several years helped her mother research the area's background and helped to change the "overgrown lot" into a thing of beauty. She said, "One thing remains etched in my memory, a quote from Cicero: 'He plants trees to benefit another generation.' That is my mother's legacy, she was committed to the environment."
King had prefaced that story with a telling anecdote about her mother. Noting there are many definitions of "first lady," she told of a time her mother cherished.
King's adopted grandchildren had asked her one day what "first lady" meant. "She told them it usually refers to the wife of the President of the United States," King said. "One of the children, Francisco, seemed satisfied with the explanation. But Sergio wasn't. 'That's OK,' he told her, 'You're our first lady, and that's what counts.'"
With obvious pride, King noted that Francisco Fonseca is now a freshman at American University, and Sergio is in the ninth grade at Ivanna Eudora King High School. "They would have loved to have been here today," King said, "but school comes first."
Under a gaily striped yellow-and-white tent, the community gathered as one to honor King. Community members sang songs, made speeches, played marches, gave benedictions, unveiled plaques and planted a mahogany tree in King's memory.
And the perennial master of ceremonies, James O'Bryan, presided, introducing almost one and all, most of whom needed no introduction.
He recognized many past senators, present lawmakers, community activists, artists, and a former "second lady," the widow of the late Lt. Gov. Henry Millin. It was a community affair.
Walking down the graceful white stairs into the First Lady's Garden, guests were greeted by smartly uniformed members of the Charlotte Amalie High School JROTC: "Good morning to you," the youngsters greeted one and all with big smiles.
In 2001, the 24th Legislature passed a bill commending King on her dedication to the restoration and beautification of natural resources throughout the territory and naming the garden in front of Government House for her.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull remembered King for her "neighborliness." "Indeed, the Kings were my neighbors for years," Turnbull said. "Neighbors are there when you are in trouble," the governor said. "I could always count on them for advice and wisdom.
"Mrs. King was a dignified, gracious, intelligent helpmate of her husband, the late Cyril E. King," Turnbull said. He noted her commitment to beautifying the islands. "She did it with class," he said.
Looking around at the garden behind her and the folks gathered before her, Senate President Berry said, "One cannot help but be charmed at this garden of blooms. And I'm thrilled at the magnitude of this celebration today.
"[King's] hallmark was the preservation of the environment. She wanted this garden. She felt it would be a place apart from the busy Government House," Berry said. "She made her mark by creating from a small plot of neglected land, a verdant sanctuary of beauty and tranquility."
Two vocalists sung out over the garden. Soprano Lorna Freeman-Dennis closed the ceremony with a lovely rendition of "He Walks With Me." Earlier, CAHS senior Estricia Viera approached the podium, gave a shy smile, cleared her throat and almost had the audience on its feet with a powerful rendering of "I Believe."
Youngsters from the Leonard E. Dober Elementary School Choir, dressed in pink and led by Malvern Gumbs, sang out a spirited and earnest version of "Freedom."
Community leaders unveiled two plaques: one facing the garden honors King for her "restoration and beautification of the territory and her 45 years of exemplary service to the American Red Cross, for which she received the Clara Barton Bronze Medal." The other, on a nearby wall, lists the five former first ladies: Mary Phyllis Anderson Evans, Agnes Agatha Schuster King, Luz Maria Guadaloupe Luis, Joan Harrigan-Farrelly and Barbara Watson Schneider.
Agnes King looked on at the ceremony from a larger-than-life-size portrait immediately in back of the podium. Some speakers seemed to defer to her with a quick glance before proceeding.
Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards likened King's dedication to that of another first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. He said, "She shared Johnson's philosophy that the environment is where we all meet; where our tastes, our aspirations, our successes and our failures converge. If we want badly enough, we can do much to change what is not pleasurable to the eye and the spirit. Where flowers bloom, so does hope."
Walking out of the ceremony, LaVerne Ragster, University of the Virgin Islands president, paused a moment, capturing the mood of the event. "It gives us a sense of community," she said. "We need more of that."
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