Remembering Arnold Highfield: Historian, Professor, Writer, Linguist, Poet

The Highfield family, from left, Christopher Highfield, Leslie Carter Highfield, Arnold Highfield, Shirley de Chabert Highfield, Kimberly Highfield, Kevin Highfield. (Submitted family photo)
The Highfield family, from left, Christopher Highfield, Leslie Carter Highfield, Arnold Highfield, Shirley de Chabert Highfield, Kimberly Highfield, Kevin Highfield. (Submitted family photo)
Arnold Highfield (Submitted family photo)
Arnold Highfield (Submitted family photo)

Arnold Highfield was a gift to the U. S. Virgin Islands. He researched, taught, and wrote about pre-Danish West Indies through the transfer of the U.S. Virgin Islands and beyond.

He dedicated his life and his studies to the preservation of the history of the Virgin Islands. He died Sept. 8 at the age of 79.

Highfield was born in Ohio and was educated in the social sciences and history at the Ohio State University. He studied French at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Spanish at the University of Madrid in Spain, and earned a doctorate in romance linguistics from OSU.

Terrence Highfield was born 18 months after his bother Arnold, and for the next 17 years, “we were hooked at the hip,” the younger sibling said. “By the age of five years old, Arnold was tenacious in everything he did.”

“He excelled as a pitcher and was recruited to play baseball, but didn’t accept; he knew, because of his limp, he could not run to first base with any speed,” Terrence recalled.

Arnold listened to every Cincinnati Reds’ baseball game, Terrence said. He developed an acute ability for memorizing batting averages and other trivia – a gift that probably laid the foundation for his academic proficiency throughout his lifetime.

“Our lives moved in different directions after high school. Arnold entered college, while I joined the U.S. Air Force and chose college later,” Terrence said.

Arnold Highfield met Shirley de Chabert, a native of St. Croix, when they both were students at the Ohio State University. They married in 1962 and have four children and three grandchildren.

Shirley de Chabert Highfield and Arnold Highfield on their wedding day. (Submitted family photo)
Shirley de Chabert Highfield and Arnold Highfield on their wedding day. (Submitted family photo)

The couple lived in Europe and returned to the U.S. to live on St. Croix, where they both taught at the University of the Virgin Islands. They later maintained homes on St. Croix and in Vermont, which they occupied alternately.

Highfield served as professor emeritus of linguistics and social sciences at the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix campus. He taught and lectured at colleges and universities in the United States, the Caribbean, and around the world.

Honors ran high in Highfield’s life: he was selected by the student body to receive the Faculty of the Year Award for the St. Croix Campus, College of the Virgin Islands, three years in a row (1975-1978), he was Scholar-in-Residence, University of the Virgin Islands, 1995-2007; honored as “Virgin Islands Hero” by AT&T in 1997; recipient of the Governor’s Virgin Islands Medal for Excellence in Literature in August 1997; recipient of the USVI Faculty Award for Excellence in Research and Scholarship in 1998.

Highfield was a prolific writer and editor, with 40 published works on Caribbean history and linguistics to his credit. Among them are “St. Croix 1493,” “The Kamina Folk,” “The French Dialect of St. Thomas,” “Hans West’s Accounts of St. Croix in the West Indies,” “J.L. Carstens’ St. Thomas in Early Danish Times,” “Theoretical Orientations in Creole Studies,” and “Under a Taino Moon.”

For two years in the early 1980s Highfield wrote a weekly column for the St. Croix Avis covering cultural events and topics dealing with history and society. At the same time, he hosted a weekly television program called “Focus” on Channel 8 TV on St. Croix. It dealt with visiting personalities, cultural events, and politics. The V.I. Daily News published his monthly article in the “Crucian Trader” in the years 2008-2013.

Arnold Highfield, left, with his sister-in-law, Luz Suarez de Highfield, and brother, Terrence Highfield. (Submitted family photo)
Arnold Highfield, left, with his sister-in-law, Luz Suarez de Highfield, and brother, Terrence Highfield. (Submitted family photo)

The Society of Virgin Islands Historians was Highfield’s brainchild. It was at the Queen’s Quarter Restaurant in 1986 that he invited some heads of St. Croix cultural institutions to gather ideas for forming a historical society. His vision was wide and in 1993, the society was formally registered with the Lt. Governor’s office. Highfield’s creation of the occasional paper series – a full-length article on a topic, a newsletter with shorter articles, book reviews and news announcements – were the focuses for the Society’s annual meeting, which attracted approximately 150 amateur historians. The 24th anniversary of the society’s founding will be in January 2020.

“Of the many hats Arnold wore, literally and metaphorically, that of lecturer was the most poignant, said Betsy Rezende, president of the Society of Virgin Islands Historians. “It didn’t matter whether he was speaking to an academic or a general audience, he was able to slowly and gently captivate the audience, transcending each listener into the crux of the issue, presenting the many possibilities for resolution and leaving each one mesmerized, a changed person. Arnold’s affect on each in the audience was manifested in the dozens of questions each person, transformed by his tone, language and content, was curious to ask. We have lost a great historian and lecturer.”

Highfield retired in 2003, but he remained as immersed in his writing as his illness permitted.

“Time Longa’ Dan Twine: Notes on the Culture, History, and People of the U.S. Virgin Islands,” was published in 2009. Highfield wrote in the Introduction:

“The 41 chapters here presented extend over a period of some 30 years. In general, they reflect what has been the principal interest of my research and writing over the long haul, namely the culture, the history and the people of these islands, in particular, of St. Croix. It is inevitable, I suppose, that those subjects and those people who have attracted me most will appear in bold relief in these pages, namely the marvels of language, the indefatigable labors of the Moravian missionaries, the mysterious soul of the African background, the subtleties of culture and the attraction of individuals who dreamed and dared to extend themselves beyond their normal limits.”

Colleague and friend Olasee Davis penned highlights of Highfield’s life in the V.I. Daily News Opinion Column:

“His contributions as a historian and as a scholar translating and editing thousands of documents from different nations that once owned these islands are a tremendous benefit to the people of the Virgin Islands.”

“What made him so special, I believe, is his publication of many books of Virgin Islands history and culture. One of my favorites is ‘The Kamina Folk: Slavery and Slave Life in the Danish West Indies,’ which translated 18th- and 19th-century printed material on slavery, life and culture in the Danish Caribbean from the original Danish and French sources,” Davis wrote.

Numerous tributes from members of the Society of Virgin Islands Historians follow in the same vein, honoring Highfield’s accomplishments and his contributions to the Virgin Islands.

“He followed my ongoing linguistic and socio-historical work on the traditional Crucian dialect with keen and sustained interest. Also, he played a central part in connection with my 2018 fieldwork on St. Croix – not least by helping me get in touch with important contacts there and thus access local speech patterns,” said Kristoffer Friis Boegh of Aarhus University in Denmark.

Highfield’s health did not allow him to return to St. Croix, which disappointment him and his many friends and students, said Nina York, St. Croix Friends of Denmark president, translator, historian, guide and SVIH member.

“My interest in island history, nurtured in my early youth by my Danish writer-father, became the link for my early acquaintance with Arnold. I admired his monumental collection of books pertaining to island history at his Grande Princesse Hill home, and we enjoyed many conversations that spurred my interest in digging deeper into the lode of literature about this amazing place. My deep sympathy goes out to his family for whom he showed great love and caring,” York added.

Reporter John Flowers of Middlebury, Vermont, interviewed Highfield in 2012 while the historian was awaiting a kidney transplant and undergoing dialysis treatments three days a week at the Burlington kidney center.

The interview covered Highfield’s University of Ohio days, meeting his wife Shirley de Chabert at the university and their marriage. It continued through the turbulence of the 1960s and the interracial couple’s difficulties living in the Midwest during that time, which prompted them to move to Europe. They later moved to St. Croix.

“I was totally an outsider,” Highfield said of his initial introduction to the Caribbean. “I couldn’t understand anything,” he said of the indigenous languages, which included variations of creole and an English patois spoken with its own unique lilt.

“Already proficient in French and Spanish, Highfield developed a quick ear for the native languages during his daily interactions with locals and with his students at the University of the Virgin Islands, where he taught anthropology, history, linguistics and other subjects. He knew he had gained a great measure of respect from Virgin Islanders when, many years into his tenure at the university, he would get impromptu ‘challenges’ from locals,” Flowers wrote of Highfield.

“They would hear, ‘There’s this white guy who can speak like us,’” Highfield said to Flowers with a smile. They would start speaking creole to Highfield and he would rattle it back. Jaws would drop and Highfield said, “I would have an immediate friend.”

According to the interviewer, Highfield became somewhat of an expert on the Virgin Islands and saw his talent and intellect in high demand – including at Middlebury College, where his daughter Leslie graduated in 1992. Highfield taught a very popular Caribbean studies course at the college for three years, an offering that included some visits to the Virgin Islands.

It was in 2012 that Highfield and his wife Shirley discontinued traveling between their homes on St. Croix and in Middlebury, Vermont. It was necessary that they remain in close proximity to the center where he would undergo his kidney transplant. Middlebury became their permanent home when he received his new kidney in 2014.“I would say that “I’ve lost 60 percent of my working capacity,” Highfield told Flowers of the impact of dialysis on his productivity. “I’ve got to be smarter about the other 40 percent,” he said.

Friends and colleagues alike enjoyed “the intellectual stimulation that became the legend of professor Dr. Arnold Highfield,” Dr. Alfred Anduze recalled. “The one thing that stands out in my mind above all else … was his mastery of the art of conversation,” Anduze said.

“To excel in this artistry, one had to, first, be a good listener,” Anduze continued. “This he could do effortlessly, include you in the conversation and give you a value that you could improve upon. Then with a twinkle in his eyes and the curling smile from one end of his mouth to the other, and in at least six languages of English, French, Spanish, Crucian and Creole, and perhaps more, Arnie could and would share ideas and convey concepts in such a way that the speaker-turned learner always felt the comfort and accomplishment of ingesting and digesting something new, something worthwhile, …knowledge. In any conversation at no matter what level, he never left you out. That is genius.”

Camille Macedon, aka King Derby, and Highfield became friends when King Derby enrolled in a Geometry/English class at UVI that was a requisite for a promotion at his engineering job at the Department of Public Works on St. Croix. A twist of fate assigned Highfield to teach the class, which required written essays at each class meeting. “I was not good at grammar and punctuation at all and my first essay grade was around 65 percent,” King Derby admitted. “Dr. Highfield allowed me to give my essays verbally. I passed the class with flying colors. What made it more interesting was Dr. Highfield’s response to my dialect. It inspired him to create a dictionary of close to 1,000 Crucian words. We became very close friends; we were real tight,” King Derby said.

Shirley Ziegler began working with Highfield just three months after she and her husband Tom moved to St. Croix in 2008.

“Working with Arnold was such a wonderful way to learn about my new home in the Virgin Islands. I’ve had a variety of jobs in my life, with each one not being more than five years. I enjoyed working with Arnold for 11 years. I learned so much during my time with him. As his assistant editor, I did cataloging, proofing, and editing of his books.

“When Arnold and Shirley moved to Middlebury for his health reasons in 2012, I continued to work for him and take care of many aspects of his business. The internet made it all possible. I’m happy that the family wants me to stay on and continue with what we’ve been doing. We’re still working toward having his collection of more than 5,000 books and articles ready to find a good home where researchers can use it.”

And from HIghfield’s colleague Lomarsh Roopnarine, former professor of history at UVI and a member of the Society of V.I. Historians, “An accomplished scholar is gone but his impact on and contribution to language, sociology, and history of the United States Virgin Islands and further afield will stay with us for a very, very long time. Professor Arnold Highfield was a brilliant mentor, an impressive teacher, a prolific writer and an inspirational speaker who captivated and influenced thousands of inter-generational students at the University of the Virgin Islands. Dr. Highfield has not only placed an indelible imprint on the language and historical narrative but also has single-handedly put the Virgin Islands onto the world map. It would be impossible not to mention the name Highfield when writing about Virgin Islands’ linguistics, history and sociology. He was a reliable individual with a remarkable ending.”

The University of the Virgin Islands has planned a tribute to Dr. Arnold Highfield on the St. Croix campus. The date has not yet been scheduled.

Dr. Arnold Highfield’s funeral is scheduled for Dec. 20 at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Christiansted. The time has yet to be announced.