March 7, 2004 – When Leona Bryant was a girl growing up on Garden Street, she would see the white-gloved cruise ship passengers strolling about, a source of wonder to her, and invite them home.
"In those days, the ladies all wore white gloves. I would ask them if they wanted to see where we lived, and I would bring them home," she says.
Bryant has spent the last 23 years doing the same sort of thing — inviting people to her home, the Virgin Islands, as tourism director from 1981 to 1996, and for the last eight years as host of the afternoon "Leona" talk show on WVWI Radio.
Now, retired from both careers, she extends the same graciousness to a reporter, who is quickly made to feel like a guest in her actual place of residence.
Seated on her gallery overlooking the Charlotte Amalie harbor, Bryant is immaculate in neatly pressed pink jeans, a pink polo shirt, perfect makeup and tasteful gold jewelry, looking the picture of health.
The fact is, nonetheless, that Bryant abruptly ended her radio show last month on the advice of her doctors. "I kept telling my children I would retire after my 75th birthday" — which was last June, she says, "but I like the show; it's fun, I enjoy doing it."
But one morning she wound up in the hospital, not at WVWI's Gregerie East studios. " I just didn't feel right," she recalls.
She had been under a certain amount of stress. Aside from the demands of the five-days-a-week talk program, her daughter Laura Moolenaar, longtime educator and recently retired principal of J. Antonio Jarvis Elementary School, was diagnosed with cancer last summer. Bryant had been (and still is) planning to travel to her daughter's home in New Jersey to help care for her.
During her own stay at Roy L. Schneider Hospital, Dr. David Boaz lectured her. "He told me, 'You are 75, you look 59, and you think you are 40. It's time to slow down.'"
Her radio career came as a surprise to her. She accepted the job somewhat skeptically. Station owner Randy Knight "said he wanted me to do it, even though I had no actual experience," she relates. "I told him I would try it for two weeks, and if I made a fool of myself, he could let me go."
She didn't and he didn't. "Leona" in the afternoon became somewhat an institution, a place to discuss things present and past, and she had her share of celebrity guests, including attorney Johnnie Cochran. ("I was overwhelmed," she says. "He told me, 'Lady, you light up a room.'")
Bryant kept callers in check on her show. She does not suffer fools gladly, and she has no qualms about expressing her opinions, but she also respects the views of others. "My doctors in the hospital were wonderful, and we are friends," she says, "even though they know I'm on the opposite side of the fence on the ambulatory center issue."
And she is compassionate. She invited Wayne "Facts Man" Adams, a frequent talk-show caller sometimes given short shrift by other radio hosts, to come on her show and discuss his mental illness. "It was the best interview I ever had," she states.
She asked Adams to talk about his illness, which he willingly did. "I asked him if it was true that his illness would force him to go after those he loves the most. "He told me yes, that when he has his episodes, he will hurt [verbally] those he loves." But the illness "can be controlled by medication," she says, "and he explained it so people would understand."
Learning about tourism on the job
Bryant was working in the Lieutenant Governor's Office when Gov. Juan Luis approached her about assuming the what was then the top tourism post — director of the Tourism Division within the Commerce Department.
"There was a director of tourism before, but it had never been anyone from the V.I., and never a woman and never a black person," she says.
She told Luis she needed time to learn the business, and she spent a couple of years as assistant director before he elevated her to the top spot in 1981.
She replaced J. Robert Smith, who was from the mainland. "He wasn't resentful; he sat me down and helped me with everything, including contacts," she relates. "I asked him, 'Why are you so kind?' He said 'because I'm a professional, and so are you.'"
And, she continues, "Milan Glumidge, general manager of Bluebeard's Castle Hotel, saved my life. I didn't understand tourism jargon at all. I would call Milan and say 'What does this mean? What are they saying?' He was so much help; I've never forgotten that."
She says many doubted she could handle the job. "They said I didn't have enough experience. I told them, 'If you don't help me, I will fail — but if I fail, you fail, too.'"
She streamlined the V.I. Calling program, which dispatched delegations of local hospitality industry representatives on exhaustive tours of up to 18 cities in two to three weeks to promote the territory as a vacation destination. "And you wound up with a bunch of tired Virgin Islanders trying to do their best," she says.
Bryant utilized the Tourism Division's mainland offices to set up appointments and arrange speaking engagements, often early morning breakfast affairs. "Val Kuffle and John McCleverty helped me, and we got it down to a science," she said, "sending all our materials ahead of time. Hundreds of boxes of stuff would be waiting for us at each stop, and we weren't exhausted at the end of the day."
She instituted a hands-on approach. "I worked with our advertising and public relations agencies personally to see what was going on," she said. "I didn't just leave it to them. We planned our campaigns together. I visited travel agents personally, and so did the offshore offices."
Promoting tourism on the go
Her own travels took her literally around the world. She set up contacts in Europe in the 1980s at a time when the Virgin Islands was at its peak as a desirable destination for wealthy European travelers who could afford — and who demanded — the best.
"I didn't have a Thanksgiving at home for five years because I was always in London for the London World Travel Market, where you see the most important people in the industry and you develop a feel for the market. you're dealing with," she said.
She visited the editor of Vogue International at her Paris office. "I told her what I wanted — a three-page spread in all the editions, all at the same time, not different months." It appeared in the magazine's English, French, Italian, Spanish and German issues simultaneously, "and it brought visitors," along with a close working relationship with Vogue, she said.
From her treasure trove of memories, which occasionally cascade out one on top of another, a particular one pops up at this point. Bryant changes the subject, a smile lighting her face. "Oh, yes, I should tell you about the Rising Stars in New York," she says.
After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, she recalls, "I was walking down Main Street, looking around, wondering what we could do to let people know we're still here." Hearing some local music, "I thought of the Rising Stars …" She telephoned Territorial Court Presiding Judge Verne Hodge, who created the steelband as an after-school and summer activity for youths, "and told him I wanted to take the orchestra to perform in New York.
"He said he had no money." So, then she called Greengage Associates, then the territory's mainland advertising agency, "and they made all the arrangements. They got the 2,000-seat Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center for a performance. I asked, 'How am I going to sell tickets for 2,000 seats?' My friends at the agency said, &
Seeing disaster as a tourism opportunity
"They said, 'Look, you spend millions in ads in all the big magazines. We will sell them tables at $5,000, $10,000 or $20,000. That will include dinner before the concert.'" And it worked beyond Bryant's expectations. "We didn't sell the others, but we sold 35 or 40 of the $5,000 tables," she says. "We not only paid all our expenses; we came home with $27,000 for the hotel association tourism training program."
She invited the Vogue editor in France, "but she said she couldn't come all the way from Paris to hear a bunch of school kids. I told her it was much more than that, so she said, 'I'll come just for you.' Although I didn't get to see her, when I got home I had a letter. She said, 'I left with tears in my eyes. Thank you.'"
Another of Bryant's daughters, Angel Boschulte, who lives nearby, peeks in now and then to keep tabs on her mother (although she wouldn't say so). Boschulte is a retired Lockhart Elementary School guidance counselor. A third daughter, Christine Bryant Harris, lives on the mainland.
Bryant is, in fact, holding up just fine. She was described in a interview many years ago as "one of the most charming zealots you'll ever meet." The more she talks about her islands, the more animated she becomes.
She recalls tourism conferences in South America, in Egypt, and encounters with the rich and famous. "I met Princess Diana at one of the London conferences; a member of the royal family always meets with the delegates," she says.
Noting that Cuba had applied for membership in the Caribbean Travel Organization, Bryant recalls, the princess asked: "'What are you going to do about it?'
"The delegates said they would form a committee to study the problem. Then the princess looked at me and said: 'Something an organization does when they don't want to face a pressing problem is form a committee.'"
Taking tourism ups and downs to heart
Turning to politics at home, Bryant laments the current state of the territory's tourism sector and overall economy. "I take second to nobody in my home, in my love of these islands," she says. "I'm to blame, because I have never shown enough of my rage. We need an outside person to come in and be the chief financial officer, not somebody who knows everybody else. That's why we're in the mess we're in. My father always told me to take your position and 'stay the line.'"
If she were Tourism commissioner today, she says, "I wouldn't rest until I got more money from the Legislature. Puerto Rico spends millions more on Bacardi Rum than we do on our whole advertising budget."
She suggested revisiting a novel approach she employed some years ago — courting the cruise ship captains. "We could do that again, do it on St. Croix," she says. We could have a V.I. get-together. Have lunches at all the big hotels and restaurants with the ship captains, with local entertainment, get the tour companies and the taxis to help, the private sector."
She adds, "If we made St. Croix safe for those who live there, ships would come anytime."
The list of luminaries Bryant has encountered, and in many cases engaged, is long. "I can't remember everybody," she says. Among those who do come to mind are Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Walters and Ted Turner. "Turner said he couldn't participate in our Rolex Regatta, but he did say he liked sailing in the V.I.," she relates.
Bryant is one of only two women to receive the World Travel Award, given in Paris. (The other is Leona Hemsley of the New York Harley and Hemsley Hotels). That's just one of the myriad honors she has received. However, none are closer to her heart than those she has received at home.
"The [St. Thomas-St. John] Chamber of Commerce and the Nevis Benevolent Society have honored me," she says, "and I have never been more beautifully introduced than when Mac Davis announced me as Rotary Person of the Year in 1995." Also high on her list of touching local tributes are having the 1996 V.I. Carnival Village named "Leonaville" in her honor and receiving the Tommy Award of Excellence from the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association last November.
Looking back on a life so filled with vitality, adventure, success and occasional pomp, Bryant is, to a degree, unassuming. She knows she has over the years made her natural graciousness that of the Virgin Islands.
"I should have kept a diary," she says, "but I just never had time."
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