John David Merwin, the first native-born Virgin Islander to become governor of the territory, died Sunday, March 17, at his home in Ohio. He was 91 years old.
In Merwin’s honor, Gov. John deJongh Jr. directed that flags on all Virgin Islands public buildings be flown at half-staff from Tuesday until the day of burial at sunset.
Merwin was born Sept. 26, 1921, on St. Croix to a prominent Crucian family. He spent his early years on the island before attending grammar school in Antigua and, later, the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and the University of Puerto Rico. He graduated from Yale University in 1943 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army where he served in World War II, attaining the rank of captain.
After World War II, Merwin attended law school in Washington, D.C. He later returned to St. Croix and established a law practice in 1949, but was called up for another tour of duty, this time in the Korean War.
Returning to the islands, he practiced law until, after the passage of the Revised Organic Act, he was elected senator-at-large in the territory’s first legislature. He served from 1955 to 1957 and was an avid campaigner for V.I. representation in the U.S. Congress. In December 1957 he was named government secretary, a position roughly equivalent to lieutenant governor today.
On Aug. 4, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Merwin for governor. Congress approved the nomination, and Merwin was sworn in on Sept. 25. He was not only the first native Virgin Islander to hold the office, but the first politician to do so; his predecessors were mostly military men or politically connected businessmen from the states.
As governor Merwin promoted tourism, setting up the territory’s first tourism office in New York City.
His death Tuesday brought condolences from the man who now holds the office.
“John Merwin was an important leader for the Virgin Islands who helped shape the political landscape at a crucial time in the territory’s history," deJongh said in a statement released Tuesday night by Government House.
"He was a trailblazer in local politics who worked to bring native Virgin Islanders into positions of prominence within the government. His legacy was an important factor in our territory’s progress toward greater autonomy and self-rule.”
DeJongh noted his own father and grandfather served in the Merwin administration.
“I wish the best to John Merwin’s wife and son during this difficult time. The people of the Virgin Islands share in their sense of loss,” deJongh said.
Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, who occupies the position Merwin lobbied for, also paid tribute to the former governor, calling him "a proud veteran and notable public servant."
“He is remembered for his concern for the interests of local Virgin Islanders and the advancement of the territory,” Christensen said in a statement released from her office. “On behalf of my family, staff and the 113th Congress of the United States, I thank Mr. Merwin for his contributions and his service to the people of the Virgin Islands. I extend sympathies to his brother, Robert Merwin; his son, John David Merwin II; and the entire Merwin family circle. Our prayers are with you all during this difficult time.”