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Late one night, as Guy Benjamin lay sleeping in his darkened bedroom. He felt a presence standing over him…watching. With his eyes still shut; his heart pounding and mind racing, Guy felt the cool Caribbean breeze come in from the window and wash over his body. Usually a welcomed gift in this hot and humid climate, the breeze this time, chilled him. Adding to his heightened awareness of the large presence looming in his room.
The presence felt stronger now. Larger. Guy could sense it standing right next to his bed; still, silent…and breathing heavy. Guy did the only thing he could do. He squinted one eye open and peered through the darkness. The huge formidable form was just barely visible. A large black shadow against the even darker shade of night. As his sight adjusted, Guy was able to make out a shape. Yep. It was a donkey.
“What?” I said. Sitting on the edge of my chair. Guy was laughing now.
“Sure!” Guy said. “He let himself in. He wanted to check up on me!”
I sat there in disbelief. Thinking that this 95 year old Islander had just pulled one over on me.
“It’s true.” Guy said with a large smile and a gleam in his eyes.
“Well… what did you do?” I said loudly. “I told him to leave” he said. “Did he?” I questioned.
“Oh sure.” “He backed himself out of my room and left the way he came in through the front door.”
Well.. then what did you do?”
“I went back to sleep.” “It’s always comforting to know that your friends are checking up on you.” Guy said.
So that was my introduction to this wonderful person named Guy Benjamin. An author and a scholar. A loving and well respected Islander of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
I had read about this man in several magazine articles recently published before my trip down to the islands in May. I wanted to meet this person and buy his book from him called “Me and My Beloved Virgin” from his roadside stand out in front of his house.
We pulled up to the stand just off the road and honked my horn three times as the sign instructed. I imagined then, Mr. Benjamin coming out with a book, signing it for me as I fumbled with my money to come up with the correct amount. Instead, we were delighted when he invited us into his house.
Mr. Benjamin graciously welcomed my Girlfriend Kim and I into his simple home stuffed with books and local artwork. I really felt under dressed to meet this man. Kim and I were headed to the East end beaches that morning when we came upon his book stand quite unexpectedly. We were dressed only in our swimsuits and flip-flops.
Guy showed us to two wooden chairs in his living room and entertained us with stories about his island upbringing for over an hour. An experience I will never forget.
You see, Guy Benjamin was born over 95 years ago on the Island of St. John. Life was simple back then on the East end of the island. Subsistent farming, fishing and artisanry were the ways of life.
Raised by his Grandmother after his Mother passed away, Guy learned to read when he was 3 years old. He was too young to go to school, but when his siblings would come home from school and do their homework, he learned quickly just by listening to them talk. When he was finally old enough to attend the small one room schoolhouse, he excelled in his studies. A few years later, lodgings were found for him on the nearby island of St. Thomas where he could attend grades 7 through 12.
At age 16, Guy was the first St. Johnian to graduate from high school, with valedictorian honors. He was then sent back to St. John to teach at two local schools now on the Western shore of Coral Bay, not too far from his house now. Later, he became Superintendent of schools in St. Thomas and St. John. One school in St. John was renamed “Guy H. Benjamin School” in his honor.
He told one last story that struck a chord with me. He spoke of a time when he was a teacher and all of his female students that year had become pregnant. His face was solemn now and his voice quivering. “I felt like I should have done more to educate these children and I had somehow failed them.” “I got all of the parents together and let them know that I felt responsible for not being able to get through to their children.” “They were very supportive of me and let me know that it was not me that was responsible.” “Still” Guy says, “I feel responsible to this day.”
It was then that I decided to tell Guy about my initiative to help the youth of St. John. I told him of my grass roots project to keep kids active and occupied through sports and fitness programs on the island. I let him know that I was working with other teachers, parents and community foundation members on island that were helping me to organize sporting and fitness events for youth of all ages.
“This”, I said “Would help focus Virgin Island youth, giving them the confidence they need to set personal goals, achieve their aspirations and create opportunity for themselves, their family and their community.” I promised him that soon, he would see the children across the street at Guy H. Benjamin School, playing with brand new Nike soccer balls. He would know then, that I am making a difference.
Guy’s face lit up with a big smile. I asked him one question: “Do you have any advice for me, for helping more youth of St. John?” Guy stated simply: “Just keep doing what you are doing.”
I smiled and nodded, knowing exactly what he meant: Not to give up on his kids.
I stood up to shake his hand and for Kim to get a picture of us together. He said, “I want to give you something.” He fumbled for a pen and shuffled through some photographs. Kim and I sat quietly while he turned the photograph over and began to write.
When Guy was finished, he handed the picture to me. It was a picture of 7 donkeys, out in front of his home. Eating the feed that Guy supplies for them every day.
“Take care of your friends.” He said.