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On Island Profile: Lionel Downer

May 29, 2006 – Lionel Downer. The name belies the man who is largely known for the intoxicating passion he invokes in all that he does.
Mention his name and you won't be asked "Who's that?"
Turn on a TV and there he is – playing a role in made-for-television advertising for his job as an insurance agent with Gotts and Associates, advertising a local play or musical, or accepting an award for community service.
Downer, 38, is president of the Rotary Club, Harborside. He is also a board member of both the Caribbean Community Theatre as well as the Women's Coalition.
Nine years after he landed on the island with suitcases in tow, and just a week after his initial visit to interview for a job with St. Croix Insurance, Downer has so embraced the Crucian community – and it him – that it's rare when he doesn't get approached by a stranger who thinks he looks familiar.
"People have come up to me and swear I'm someone's son. Up until I open my mouth, people think I'm a native Crucian," Downer said, laughing.
Downer is not a son of Crucian soil but a Chicago native, a place he still visits twice a year – usually during Christmas and summer – to visit his parents and younger brother. He's often asked by people of Chicago to describe his new home.
One of the first things Downer describes to them is St. Croix's aquamarine waters, he recalled. He said that in Chicago the only place to swim was in "murky, grainy water." A visit to Shoys Beach changed things, he said.
"I can never go back to swimming in Lake Michigan," he laughed.
It wasn't just the water that made him dig his heels in to the island, but everything about St. Croix.
"I like the small community, the small town environment," Downer said recently as he sat back in a comfy chair in the space he shares with Carl Gotts at Gotts and Associates, a large open space with dim lights and jazz music piping over head.
"Carl (Gotts) jokes it's like living in Mayberry. Everyone basically knows each other," Downer said of the island. "You see your clients in the check out line at Pueblo or at the bank. If something isn't right with their policy, I will hear about it in the checkout line. In Chicago, you have anonymity and people don't make eye contact. Here, it's 'good morning' or 'good afternoon.'"
Downer wouldn't have it any other way
And, back in Chicago when his mother cooked perch, Downer said he didn't like seafood. Now, when he walks into a restaurant, his choice is almost always the catch-of-the-day.
Downer has spent five years with the Caribbean Community Theatre and he said many people know him from local plays and musicals. He got involved in theatre and choir in high school, he said.
"I was fortunate to have attended a diverse high school with a prestigious fine arts department," he said.
Asked whether he may have been an actor had he stayed in Chicago, Downer said he has no regrets.
"I didn't think to look for an opportunity in theatre in Chicago," he said, adding that it probably wasn't in the cards.
These days he's satisfied in the roles he receives in local productions or caroling house to house during the holidays.
It was one of the carolers who told him he should audition for an upcoming musical, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," which was produced by the Caribbean Community Theatre. He's been hooked since.
Downer recalled that cold day in January 1997 when Gotts, then an independent agent on St. Croix with United Health Care working – the same company Downer worked for as a sales representative in Chicago – asked whether he'd be interested in coming to the Virgin Islands to work for St. Croix Insurance.
"It was 25 degrees in Chicago and there was four inches of snow on the ground," Downer recalled. "I said 'sure, I'd be interested.'"
He interviewed for the job, stayed on-island for a week, then went back to Chicago to pack the rest of his belongings and returned for good.
Downer and Gotts later decided to put the experience they'd honed to the test, forming Gotts and Associates. The company briefly shared space with St. Croix Insurance before moving to a new location in downtown Christiansted.
Like most transplants, Downer moving to St. Croix was an adjustment for him, but one he made quickly. "I liked the fact that people care how you were doing," he said.
That's exactly why many people like Louise Lewis think highly of Downer.
"He genuinely cares about his fellow men and he gives back to the community," Lewis said.
She met Downer when he joined the Rotary Club about four years ago, Lewis said, and "all of the nice things you would say about a person I would say about him: He's very nice, very respectful. He's down to earth; he's friendly and very generous."
"I get the impression that he's had good upbringing and Christian background and he honors his parents," she said. "He goes back home to visit every year, especially during Christmas."
Lewis also described Downer's acting and singing abilities, giving him an A-plus in both categories, and she noted that he is the consummate professional at the Rotary meetings he chairs.
But Downer said giving back is commonplace.
He said, "Particularly if you're a business person, you get so much from the community from a financial side, so giving back should be second nature. That's one of the things I respect about Carl; he's into giving back to the community."
And Downer said a lot of what he gets credit for is what comes naturally – treating people the way he would like to be treated.
"I'm just a regular guy, and if someone asks for my assistance I do what I can to help because I would hope that they would do the same for me," he said.

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