Members of Steel Unlimited with Sis Frank, center, in New York at Lincoln Center, 1974.
When Ruth “Sis” Frank passed away on Thanksgiving Day, she left behind a collection of warm memories which still live on in the minds and hearts of those who loved her.
From her unmistakable laugh and signature “Sis-isms” that could be heard echoing through the streets of Cruz Bay for more than 50 years to her genuine love of the arts, the island and its children, Sis was as much a part of St. John as it was of her.
“Sis fell in love with the island people and their culture which she shared for almost 52 years,” said Jan Kinder, a close friend of 26 years. “My life has been forever touched by her presence. As our friendship grew closer over the years, we began caring for and loving each other more like family.”
Phillip “Grasshopper” Pickering, leader of St. John’s premier reggae band Inner Visions and new member of SJSA Board of Directors, knew Sis from the time he was a young boy and throughout his teenage years playing in Steel Unlimited, the steel pan band success Sis managed alongside band director Rudy Wells.
“When we looked at Sis, we never saw color,” Pickering said. “When we looked at Sis, we saw ourselves. She was one of us and she embraced us.”
From the moment he met Sis, Pickering recalls the overwhelming compassion in her eyes and the unwavering sense of reassurance and encouragement she provided to so many of the island’s youth over the years.
“She came to St. John and really looked at the community and became a part of it and became a part of the people,” he said. “She and Rudy took a group of kids who would normally have been on the street corner and getting into trouble and gave them something to do. Sis is going to be missed dearly and we will all remember Sis just as Sis was — as an inspiration to everybody.”
Rudy Wells fondly recalls the time he first met Sis — when she would come to Cruz Bay Park to listen to him teach steel pan music to local youth on weekends.
“She was very impressed by what I was doing with the children,” he said. “She asked me if I was a musician and I told her, ‘No, I just do this because as a kid in Trinidad I got involved in steel bands and I’ve been with steel band all my life’.”
After a few months of listening to Wells creating steel pan music with the children on the weekends, a friendship was forged. Soon Sis organized a scholarship for Wells which allowed him to study his passion at the Berklee College of Music. When he returned six years later, the two worked together to make Steel Unlimited and then Steel Unlimited II the pride and joy of the island.
“Sis was the person I depended on — she became a part of this with me,” he said. “She had a love for children that was unbeatable.”
Sis and Wells helped broaden the horizons for St. John youth — Steel Unlimited performed at the Rose Bowl parade, Disneyland, the Lincoln Center and Shea Stadium while Steel Unlimited II put on 60 annual island performances and booked month-long tours in Denmark, Germany, New York, France and Switzerland.
“I have been looking around for years, and I haven’t met anyone who could think or operate or function like Sis,” Wells said. “Sis was the type of person who you could go to with a small idea, and she would make it happen — maybe she knew nothing about it, but she would find a way to help you to achieve it.”
Wells said Frank possessed an unbelievable energy — one that radiated when she listened to the youth steel pan band.
“They don’t make that model anymore,” Wells said. “I have never met a human being that can say and do the things I have seen and heard Sis do in her lifetime. She was an incredible human being.”
Born out of the steel band’s success, Sis co-founded St. John School of the Arts with Wells and Elroy Sprauve and served as its executive director for 30 years.
“I remember when we negotiated to buy the land for the school — Sis was always so optimistic and she really saw this as her way of giving back to the community and helping the young people of St. John,” Elroy Sprauve said. “Even during the discouraging times, she kept all of us motivated and focused, and always managed to build our spirits.”
Knowing Sis from the time she arrived in late 1959 and working by her side for more than 20 years with Steel Unlimited and the art school, Sprauve recalled the tremendous impact she had on the island and its youth.
“Many young people who had the chance to participate in the band and take these lessons at the art school and get this whole experience would not have had that opportunity if it weren’t for Sis,” he said. “She led a life that all of us should try to follow and exemplify.”
Kinder, who met Sis in New York in 1984 when she asked her to help develop programs and workshops for St. John’s budding art school, called Sis a visionary — someone who could recognize the potential in others.
“She had an ability to connect with and attract accomplished and renowned teachers to join her while encouraging and giving new teachers an opportunity to grow,” said Kinder, who Sis appointed as SJSA’s executive director in late 2006.
Kinder attributes the school’s success to Sis’ straightforward approach and ability to keep things simple and uncomplicated.
“She would never shy away from a challenge,” Kinder said, recalling their daily morning phone calls. “Every morning she would say she was off to the school to see what problems needed solving for the day.”
Rafe Boulon remembers Sis as far back as a child of 9- or 10-years-old. One of his first recollections is when she and her late husband, Carl Frank, gave him his first rod and reel to replace the hand lines and bamboo poles he was accustomed to fishing with.
“To me, Sis never changed, she was always Sis,” he said. “Sis just provided so much to the children of this community and opened lots of doors and opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise had. She is very much a part of this island, and I don’t know if a single person who has ever spoken a negative word of her.”
Inga Hiilivirta met Sis in the early ‘60s; times she refers to as the “kinder and gentler” days of St. John.
“She was a dear friend and has been a great blessing in my life,” Hiilivirta said. “In many ways, Sis has helped St. John become Love City by being herself and so caring. She was a legend already while she was still with us.”
Vashti Boynes first met Sis during her tenure at Caneel Bay Resort when she honeymooned there with Frank. The two remained close throughout the years, and Boynes was among the handful of friends who bid Sis farewell during her final days.
“Sis was an asset to St. John and I will miss her dearly,” said Boynes, recalling her constant friendship and encouragement throughout the years. “She was a good, good friend of mine; truly beautiful.”
Pastor Carlyle Sampson of the Nazareth Lutheran Church remembers Sis as someone who was always involved in and supportive of the community.
“She has been very gracious and generous in supporting the arts and younger children,” Pastor Sampson said. “That is something she has always been very passionate about.”
Karen Samuel, who knew Sis from the time she was a young girl, said Sis provided invaluable support for the local children with artistic talents when others would have told them to pursue something more sensible.
“Sis was someone who always encouraged people to continue pursing their skills and training,” Samuel said. “St. John is a small community and there were not a lot of professional, local artists. Having someone from the outside encouraging you was extremely valuable because it gave a different perspective.”
Barbara Fernandez, Sis’ childhood friend of 86 years, shared a lifetime of stories about Sis – from growing up together in Norwich, New York, where they spent summers riding horses, going to camp and taking vacations to moving to St. John years later and creating memories together there.
“I am two weeks older than she is, and we always celebrated our birthdays every year – we knew each other since the time we were born and we’ve remained close all these years,” said Fernandez, who lived on St. John in the 60s and 70s. “When we were in the islands, there were a couple of jazz bands mixed with the steel drums, and we’d go every weekend just to listen to them perform and have a couple of rum and tonics.”
Fernandez, the oldest of five sisters and brothers, said Sis, who had no siblings of her own, was like part of the family.
“She was so much fun and full of life and I enjoyed her like a sister,” she said.
It is this same sense of family Sis found on St. John. As the island’s matriarch, she was a mother, sister and friend to all who had the privilege of knowing and inevitably loving her. She will be greatly missed, but her spirit still radiates in the community she left behind