Mar. 16, 2004 A little more than four decades ago, the concept of higher education became a reality in the Virgin Islands. Although originally met with the skepticism that often attends visionary concepts, that college — now a university — is flourishing. This Tuesday marked the 42nd anniversary of the University of the Virgin Islands as the official celebration of Charter Week got under way. The theme of this year's event is "UVI: A Link in the Chain of Our Community of Learners."
Guests at the day's inaugural lecture received a unique and somehow fitting musical welcome. Professor Martin Lamkin and the Anacrusis Brass Quintet — dressed in matching bright blue shirts and holding their horns high — serenaded one and all with "Our Love is Here to Stay."
UVI President LaVerne Ragster, elegant in a blue pantsuit and her trademark sandbox wood earrings, took the podium and said with a smile, "I saw a green grasshopper this morning. In local lore, that means I am supposed to get money today."
It mattered little that no dollars rained down from the ceiling at her remark. Ragster is pleased with the inroads she has made in integrating the university with the community — a goal she set in March 2003 upon becoming the first female UVI president.
When Ragster first assumed the presidency, she told a Rotary Club luncheon, "I don't intend to sleep or let anybody else at the university sleep. We understand that what happens to the community happens to us, and that what happens to us also happens to the community."
During Tuesday's event, Ragster said, "I'm here with joy and with a sense of awe. The territory hasn't been the same since the day that statute was signed in 42 years ago." She then teased her audience, "This is going to get exciting, folks, listen for the word, 'future.'"
"The four presidents before today each had his own focus," she said. "Lawrence Wanlass, the first president of the then College of the V. I., got land grant status for the school and started the Melvin Evans Center on St. Croix; Arthur Richards instituted programs for Bachelor of Science and Master's degrees and then built the Reichhold Center; and Orville Kean, our last president, founded the Eastern Caribbean Center and the William McLean Marine Science Center."
Ragster said, "Dr. Kean had to battle to recover from seven storms, including two major hurricanes. The UVI Sports and Fitness Center was finished under Dr. Kean, and we got the UVI Research and Technology Park started. And that got the community upset with UVI all over again." (See "Senate votes money for tech park, firefighters".)
Ragster has fought hard to get funding for the technology park from the Legislature, and she has succeeded. Last fall the 25th Legislature overrode Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's veto of a $2.5 million appropriation for UVI's Research and Technology Park. Turnbull had concerns with the funding. Ragster said Tuesday, "We now have partners private and public in the implementation of the park."
Revealing some of her "future" surprises, Ragster said, "We are using more technology; we are in the bond market now; we are showing signs of becoming mature. We will be the most sought after partner in the territory."
She then gave thanks to the 5,700 alumni. "If we don't remember the shoulders we stood on, what is the point of the last 42 years?"
And then Ragster changed the subject. Visibly brightening, she introduced Dr. Alfred O. Heath. "I know Dr. Heath will be introduced this evening, but I want to honor him here, too." Ragster recounted Heath's many, many talents, awards and nonmedical abilities. She said, "And he is a pilot, too. I know, I've flown with him."
Tuesday evening is the inauguration of the Alfred O. Heath Distinguished Speakers Forum, which has been established, Ragster said, to offer the public a setting in which to hear persons of national and international renown discuss issues related to the challenges and opportunities faced by the V.I. community.
Heath accepted Ragster's praise with but a short remark. Standing with his head bowed, he said, "This is a moving moment; I am honored and deeply humbled."
The event was chaired by Carol Henneman, a UVI assistant English professor and Ragster's cousin, a fact she said she "had to mention." Dr. Wycherley Gumbs, in an opening reflection, reminded everyone to remember the precepts of Dr. Martin Luther King, to "honor knowledge with passion."
Eustace Esdaille, a member of the UVI Board of Trustees and head of the UVI Business Division, spoke of the "significant impact" UVI has had on the community. Deanna Rogers of the UVI Alumni Association spoke of strides the association has made, including securing a seat on the UVI board. Maxine Nunez, head of the UVI Nursing Division, introduced the guests.
James O'Bryan spoke for Turnbull who is off-island. The governor sits on the board of trustees. After praising the university on its progress, O 'Bryan spoke of Dr. Heath.
"The governor would want to give thanks to Dr. Heath, a true renaissance man who stood up in the infancy of UVI and defended the idea." O 'Bryan said, "Our task today is to bring peace. We are our brothers' keeper."
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