There are some people who, when they die, you think, “If only they had had a chance to …” That cannot be said of Peter Muilenburg, a long-time resident of St. John who died in August after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Peter packed an astonishing amount of adventure, righteous action, community connection and family building into his 74 years. He was a political activist, a school teacher, a charter boat captain, and an author of two remarkable books of true tales that feature St. John, among other places. A memorial service for him will be held Dec. 19 on St. John.
From the time that he was a baby, Peter’s life was extraordinary. His father was a missionary, and as a one-year-old he went with his parents to China. That was in 1946 as the Nationalists and Communists were battling for control of the empire. After several years, when his father realized that there was little future for Christianity in Communist China, they had to sneak out of the country on a tramp steamer because the harbor was blockaded. The family moved to the Philippines, where Peter completed high school.
Peter’s first time living in America was when he attended Dartmouth College to study history; it was the 1960s and he was soon swept into political activism and the fight for Civil Rights. During his summers and after graduating, Peter joined the Freedom Riders and spent time in jail in Mississippi for participating in protests against segregation.
When he was 21, Peter took a job working in a building that housed several religious organizations. One of his tasks was to run errands, and one day he found himself alone in the elevator with an attractive “go-fer” from another organization, the 19-year-old Dorothy Stevenson.
“He was just back from a year in Mississippi and time in jail, and I was awestruck by that kind of thing,” said Dorothy. They started dating and discovered, though they didn’t want to admit it at first, that they had both grown up in missionary families.
Peter and Dorothy fell in love and were married in 1967. Amidst the political turmoil, they decided to go on a camping trip to Cinnamon Bay in the Virgin Islands National Park.
“We arrived in St. John during hurricane season with a knapsack full of books – mostly Marxist – and a hundred bucks,’’ Peter told writer Capt. Fatty Goodlander for a chapter about him in Goodlander’s anthology “St. John People.” “We pitched a tent on the beach in Cinnamon Bay and watched the sailboats glide by. I remember thinking how beautiful it was, and how nice it would be to own a boat here.”
That year the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down a decision that all children in the territory had a right to a public school education, including children of workers who were citizens of other islands. That led to a teaching shortage in the Virgin Islands, and Peter and Dorothy scrapped their plan to return to New York and took teaching jobs at the Julius E. Sprauve School. They bought a boat, Venceremos, and lived aboard in Cruz Bay harbor at a time when there was only one other live-aboard vessel anchored there.
Clarice Thomas, who had been teaching since she 15, was the principal of the Sprauve School then, both Peter and Dorothy recalled how the classroom would hush when she entered the room.
“There was tremendous respect for her. She had taught the kids, their parents, and their grandparents – she’d taught way back when it was just a one-room school.”
Peter taught many remarkable students, including Karen Samuel and Alberto Samuel, both of whom became teachers. Alberto later taught Peter and Dorothy’s two sons, Rafael and Diego, at the Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay. “I thought it was a nice continuum, illustrative of how things are on a small island,” Peter told Goodlander.
His passion for activism continued. In 1970, when Richard Nixon vacationed at Caneel Bay Resort during the Vietnam War, Peter, his friend Andy Rutnik, and their wives and babies, sailed back and forth in front of the hotel with a sign that proclaimed, “While Nixon lazes, Indo-China blazes!”
The boat life soon claimed Peter’s attention. He and Dorothy started cruising the Caribbean with their two young sons. As there was no progressive pre-school on St. John, Dorothy teamed up with Don and Debbie Schnell, Anna Johannson and Janet Cook-Rutnik to launch a pre-school program in Pine Peace in 1978. Peter and other fathers helped build the furniture. The Pine Peace School later expanded to become the Gifft Hill School, now St. John’s only school offering pre-K through grade 12 education.
The Muilenburgs decided they needed a bigger boat to accommodate their family, a boat that would be steady on trans-Atlantic voyages. In 1979, they started building Breath, a 42-foot, 21-ton ketch-rigged vessel. Breath was launched in Round Bay in 1982 with much community participation and celebration.
Several years later, Peter began to organize flotillas to raise money for the Moravian Church. He taught free classes in celestial navigation – he was saddened when GPS technology took over.
Breath soon became the Muilenburgs’ conveyance to many destinations, including Venezuela, Spain, Turkey, Greece, Senegal, and Gambia. They were often joined by friends and family, including Peter’s father, even into his 90s.
Although the temptation to paraphrase their adventures is strong, it’s far better to recommend experiencing them in Peter’s own voice, which readers can do in his two books, “Adrift on a Sea of Blue Light” and “A Seadog’s Tale.”
Peter and Dorothy primarily made their living by chartering Breath with the assistance of their two sons and Santos, a lovable schipperke – a breed of dog well known for their loyalty. Raf became a lawyer who practices on St. John, and Diego became a doctor. Both married, they now each have two children.
After Peter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1994, he continued to mentor aspiring boat captains, including Jared Warren and Colin Hanson, who kept the chartering business going. In 2012, as his mobility became more limited, Peter and Dorothy moved to Florida to take advantage of more comprehensive care for Peter. Dorothy continues to reside there and can be contacted by sending an email to [email protected]
Breath was anchored in Coral Bay when Hurricane Irma struck in 2017; she went up on the rocks, but she was lifted aboard a salvage boat, patched and re-floated by Colin Hanson and Leah Randall, one of Peter’s captains and his mate. They are now restoring her and documenting their work on the Breath Facebook page.
Editor’s note: “St. John People,” with its portrait of Peter, has been republished and is available in stores on St. John and on Amazon. Peter Muilenburg’s two books, “Adrift on a Sea of Blue Light” and “A Seadog’s Tale,” are also available on Amazon and some shops.