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Former Sen. Elmo D. Roebuck Dead at 74

March 18, 2009 — The territory lost one of its most highly revered and spirited voices Tuesday with the passing of former Sen. Elmo D. Roebuck, politician, poet, storyteller extraordinaire, dancer, teacher, musician, friend.
Roebuck, 74, died at his home, according to his wife, Pierina Jacobs McBrowne Roebuck.
An immediate outpouring of sadness, tempered with fond memories, came from the community, including politicians, former governors, folks on the street, and former schoolchildren who had grown up on his tales and music.
"The Virgin Islands has lost a political giant and a mover and shaker in the halls of the V.I. Legislature," Gov. John deJongh Jr. said in a Government House statement.
The governor echoed the sentiments of many in the community when he said, "My memories of Elmo Roebuck date back to the times when Elmo and his father, Ector, engaged in storytelling and singing cultural songs, usually to the younger generations." He continued, "Together, they did their part to keep the culture and history alive. We can all remember hearing the father-and-son duo singing a folk song, accompanied by a ukulele, or telling a story about times past."
The governor and his wife, Cecile, expressed condolences to Rina Roebuck and his children: Elmo Jr., Nicole and Kasim.
"May the many warm memories of times shared be a source of comfort and solace to all who mourn the loss of Elmo D. Roebuck," deJongh said.
Until he was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, Roebuck had lost none of the vigor that kept him at the top of island politics for decades and earned him the title "Elder Statesman." He served in seven legislatures, four of those as president and three as head of the Finance Committee.
After teaching five years at Charlotte Amalie High School and holding several government posts, Roebuck became the youngest Virgin Islander to hold a cabinet-level post in 1964, when then-Gov. Ralph M. Paiewonsky named him to head the Department of Housing and Community Renewal.
"That's when the political bug really hit me," Roebuck said in a 2005 Source interview. "I joined the Unity party under Earle B. [Ottley]."
(See "On Island Profile: Elmo Roebuck."
Later, Roebuck left the Unity party to become one of the organizers of the New Democratic party. In 1970, he ran as a lieutenant governor candidate with Alexander Farrelly as governor. Though they lost the election, the campaign whetted Roebuck's political appetite.
He ran for the Senate in 1972, receiving the largest number of votes of any candidate in the St. Thomas-St. John district. It started his decades-long senate career as "Elmo D., the Man for We."
Roebuck's zest for life infected everything he did, whether presiding with style and grace over a sometimes unruly senate, advising governors or simply sitting down with a group of schoolchildren and telling the Anansi stories to remind them of their rich cultural background. His wit was almost as well-known as his political achievements.
Expressing her condolences Wednesday, Delegate Donna M. Christensen called Roebuck "one of the political giants of the Virgin Islands … who led and molded the islands in its formative years."
She also noted his efforts to preserve tradition. Roebuck, Christensen said, "was an honored and revered storyteller who kept the culture and history of the territory alive with his humor, his wit and his ukulele playing of traditional folk stories and songs."
In a Source interview in 2005, Roebuck said he considered his biggest accomplishment was "shepherding through the Coastal Zone Management Commission."
"That was momentous legislation," he said. "Before, it was just part of the Planning Board. And I initiated the Legislature Post-Auditor office, a system for examining government revenues and department audits — it informed the senators."
Roebuck, in fact, held that post himself in the 17th Legislature.
"In 1976, I received a key from Queen Margareth of Denmark, the Kommander AF Dannebrogordenen, an award of knighthood," he said. "I loved the pomp. But it has to be returned when I die."
The CZM wasn't the only accomplishment Roebuck expressed pride about. Sen. Louis Hill said Wednesday that Roebuck told him he felt his greatest contribution was his work in public housing.
"He tackled the job with a passion," Hill said. "He described himself as the 'father of the plan to establish public-housing communities.'"
Hill described Roebuck as the lawmaker with the "golden tongue, for his ability to expound on any subject on a moment's notice."
"He was an amazing man, worthy of his many awards and honors," Hill said.
Former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull said he had known Roebuck since the fourth grade. The two graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in the class of 1952, where Roebuck was valedictorian and Turnbull served as class historian.
"The Virgin Islands has lost one of its most useful, gifted and brilliant public servants," Turnbull said. "He served these islands he loved with honesty, integrity and vision for more than half a century."
Praise also came from former Gov. Juan Luis.
The "unprecedented progress of the V.I., despite the economic recession of 1980-1982, was in part attributable to Roebuck's professional advice," Luis said. Roebuck, he continued, "left a remarkable and enviable legacy as a doer that has benefited many Virgin Islanders."
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone feels Roebuck's work had a direct impact on the lives of many in the territory.
"Sen. Roebuck, without question, was very instrumental in improving the social and living conditions of thousands of Virgin Islanders for which many of us will be forever grateful," Malone said, also nothing that his "contributions and commitment will forever be etched in the records of V.I. history for many generations to reflect on."
Former Lt. Gov. Kenneth Mapp remembered Roebuck as a man of "character, strong moral values, self-confidence and integrity." He continued, "Elmo was devoted to his people …. He was truly a man of great strength and compassion, a consummate statesman and dedicated public servant."
Broadcaster Lee Carle recalled memories of his old pal, the Elder Statesman, Wednesday morning.
"He was in the dance group at the old V.I. Hotel," Carle said. "We used to have a Saturday night show — we'd do numbers from the roaring '20s, to the surprise of the tourists."
Roebuck was a man of many talents, according to the broadcaster.
"What I remember most is that he was very up on everything, he was a community force," Carle said. "And he could balance the budget, something he learned from his mentor, Earl B. Ottley."
Funeral arrangements will be announced later.
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