Historical Bits & Pieces by Chuck Pishko

George Simmons

George Simmons: A Good Leader Remembered

Recently Governor John deJongh lamented over “…the sad series of charges, indictments, and allegations of public wrongdoing and corruption over the past years before we got here, and this sad drumbeat is still beating, it appears there is more to come.”
It is a good time to remember those who came before us who were outstanding leaders and public administrators: George H.

Simmons was one of those leaders. Simmons served as the St. John Administrator for 25 years between 1946 to 1975. There was a brief break in his service of about three years in the late 60s. He was appointed Administrator by Governor William H. Hastie himself, appointed by President Harry S. Truman as the first modern black governor of the United States Virgin Islands. Hastie had been the Dean of Howard University Law School and a U.S. District Judge in the islands from 1937–1939.

In 1946, there was no electricity on the island. In 1947 the first power plant was opened to the pandemonium created by bolting animals because of the noise and confused chickens because of the artificial light. It was only in service for a few evening hours. Progress has its price.

The island was crisscrossed with trails and “oxcart” roads used to carry goods to and from the former plantations. We still have a small segment of one of these roads out near Annaberg. Administrator Simmons rode horseback to carry out his duties and supervised road crews with pick axes and shovels who were constructing our first roads over the rugged terrain. In spite of this, he built Centerline Road from Bordeaux to Cruz Bay. In 1948 he received the second army surplus Jeep, which may have given him additional incentive to establish roads. The first person to get a jeep was Cory Bishop, owner of Hammer’s Farm.

In 1955 a radio transmitter was set up to communicate with the government secretary in St. Thomas on a fixed schedule. This supplemented the written messages sent back and forth by sloop. It did replace the homing pigeons that were used at one time to carry urgent messages. The radio was quickly followed by a hand-crank phone.

Simmons also saw the establishment of regular daily ferry service with the M/V St. John, a 50-foot former Navy vessel. Mr. Simmons’ first voyage to St. John was as a boy of 10 years. He and his father left the St. Thomas waterfront at 11 a.m. and reached Cruz Bay 12 hours later. This trip may have inspired the ferry service.

George Simmons married Ubaldina Francis in 1942. They had four children and also raised two nephews. Her cooking skills and talents were in wide demand at the Nazareth Lutheran food sales. They lived most of the time on St. John in the Administrator’s residence at the Battery. George’s family came from Saba. The Saba Simmons were renowned for their seamanship serving as ships’ captains and harbormasters.

Prior to his appointment as St. John Administrator in 1946, he helped organize the Department of Finance under the Naval Administration. One of his first important jobs was to assist in the swearing-in of the governors every two years. Tradition required a 21 gun salute immediately after the new governor, during the Oath of Office, said “so help me God.” Simmons’ job was to go out on the roof and wave a white towel to signal a ship’s gunner to begin the salute. His timing was superb and the swearing-in was proclaimed in booming reports with split second precision.

Ubaldina Simmons was not only a good cook, she was the Postmaster (not Postmistress, no such title existed, she insisted) for St. John for 25 years. Originally the post office was a fourth class station located in Miss Andromeada Keating’s home. The growth of the operation required a move to the small building at the Battery. Soon the operation was a second class station. Ms. Eulita Jacobs remembers how she would watch for the mail boat arriving at the Creek. She would then get her grandmother’s permission to run down the hill from Pastory to the Battery to get the mail. She would be admonished by the Postmaster to go directly home — no dawdling. No lines — no waiting in those days. In 1972, Mrs. Simmons was named Woman of the Year by the St. John Business and Professional Women’s Organization. She resigned as Postmaster one month before her husband retired.

George Simmons’ 50 years of public service imbued him with wisdom on the issues that affect our community now as they did then. When George Simmons started, St. John had one policeman and no crime.

“The current trend toward lawlessness on the part of young people is caused in part by lack of parental control,” he said.

On harmonious relations between native islanders and newcomers he said, “We have always welcomed individuals who come as friends and want to help our community. However, some people feel they should have special privileges because they spend a lot of money. Dollars never meant that much to Virgin Islanders: we could use them, but we would rather be happy.”  (Quotes from the June, 1975, The Virgin Islander.)         

We can always use another wise leader! I’m sure community members have their own special memories of George Simmons, and I invite you to share those memories with the St. John Tradewinds.