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FORT MUSEUM CURATOR JOWERS RETIRING

June 20, 2001 – Fondly referring to her as the "mother of the museum," friends, colleagues, staff and government officials bid farewell and best wishes to Delores Jowers on Friday morning at a retirement party held in the place where she devoted 30 years of her life — Fort Christian.
Prior to the start of the festivities, Jowers darted about the courtyard of the territory's oldest structure in continuous use, making sure everything was in order — much as she had done for decades as curator of the Fort Christian Museum.
Myron Jackson, director of the Historic Preservation Office in the Planning and Natural Resources Department, opened the program by reading a letter from Penny Paine, the first curator of the museum. Paine left the position in 1972 after only seven months, citing the conditions under which she had to work, in a rat-infested dungeon in the bowels of the 300-year-old structure.
"I have been in this cell for seven and a half months. The prisoners upstairs only serve six months," Paine wrote in her letter of resignation addressed to Enid M. Baa.
"These are the conditions Mrs. Jowers walked into when she took over," shortly after Paine left, Jackson said.
Although the prisoners were soon gone altogether — to the new criminal justice center a block away — conditions of hardship continued as a way of life for many years to come, reaching a low point in 1989 with the damage inflicted by Hurricane Hugo.
But, through Jowers' efforts, federal Community Development Block Grant funding was already in the pipeline for much-needed work, not only historic restoration but also upgrading of plumbing and wiring, and the construction of a carpentry workshop, a conservation laboratory, new restrooms and handicap access.
The fort over the centuries had served as governor's quarters, place of worship, government offices, prison, courthouse and police station before being designated a museum in 1971. At the time Hugo struck, the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency was headquartered there.
In November of 1991, the museum having been closed for 16 months for renovation work, Jowers stood in the midst of a dingy, airless warren of cubicles in the "upstairs" of the fort wall facing the waterfront. Grimy cobwebs draped the walls. Old wiring from long-gone fixtures dangled from the dark upper reaches. Potholes pockmarked the layers of floor coverings underfoot. "This is where my office will be," she told a writer, gesturing into a yet darker, dirtier recess in the southwest corner, her voice betraying no dismay.
And so it came to be.
Claudette Lewis, assistant commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources, picked up on that theme in her comments. "Everything you see here today is a testimony to Mrs. Jowers and her work," she said, surveying the inner spaces of the fort.
Lewis delivered some encouraging news. She said that $1 million in Federal Highway Trust Fund money earmarked for additional restoration at the museum — money that Jowers fought long and hard to get — "will be moving forward."
In her comments, Lewis took both the Legislature and the administrative branch of government to task for failing to provide funding for the museum. "In every appearance we have made before the Legislature, they say how beautiful Fort Christiansvaern is," she said, referring to the fortress in Christiansted. However, she noted, "Fort Christiansvaern is funded by the National Park Service."
She continued, "Until we as a government make the financial commitment" to support historic and cultural restoration projects such as the Fort Christian Museum, they will continue to be "the work of one woman."
Coming to work for the last three decades has been a family affair for Jowers and her husband, John, executive director of the V.I. Council on the Arts since 1985 and associate director before that. With the VICA office a short block away, Jowers had access to a fax machine when none was available at the museum, and she didn't hesitate to enlist her husband as a volunteer helper at after-hours functions in the fort.
For nearly 20 years, at Jowers's invitation, the museum has been home to the School of Visual Arts and Careers, an after-school and summer enrichment program for high school students interested in pursuing college studies in the visual arts. Its graduates have been accepted into such prestigious schools as Pratt Institute and the Ringling School of Art and Design.
And, under Jowers's direction, the fort has been a resource venue for other community organizations and activities, often under the stars in the courtyard — local productions of "The Nutcracker" and "Man of La Mancha," Beaux Arts Balls, a banquet for the nation's lieutenant governors, a reception commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Danish transfer of the islands to the United States, a Christmas concert by the Caribbean Chorale.
It housed the only public art gallery on St. Thomas until the hanging space was declared unsafe after Hugo due to roof and floor damage. While that area has yet to be renovated, Jowers oversaw the conversion of two former prison cells into temporary exhibition space.
Curating the museum has meant much more than greeting guests, playing the gracious hostess and overseeing restoration efforts. In addition to the cultural and natural history artifacts on display, there are many others in storage for which no display space is available. The work of cataloguing and re-cataloguing holdings and researching and planning for expanded exhibits has been ongoing.
At Friday's ceremony, furniture restorer David Dorival described himself as the "father" of the museum to Jowers's "mother." Having served alongside her for 26 years, he recalled how in the old days he had to "take a line and hang our lunch" to protect it from the predator rodents then inhabiting the fort.
Museum maintenance assistant Errol Fontaine, whom Jowers hired several years ago from the Center for Independent Living, told the gathering, "Nobody here could do a job like her."
Franklin Omarrow, another longtime museum employee, who has done everything from guiding tours of the fort for school groups and other visitors to mopping the floors, said, "If it weren't for Mrs. Jowers, we might not have this museum. It was her love and dedication that has kept it going."
A host of other government luminaries including the St. Thomas-Water Island administrator, Louis Hill; retired educator Ulla Muller; and Juel Anderson, Tourism Department public relations aide, took their turns reminiscing and lauding the monumental task Jowers took on and saw through.
Jowers herself was a woman of few words at the gathering in her honor. "Fort Christian is not my museum. It is the community's museum," she said. Then she added, "I hope officials will listen to my recommendations" for her replacement.
Jowers assured her friends and well-wishers that she will continue to serve the museum as a volunteer. And, as Jackson said at the close of his remarks, "She's not leaving, only retiring."

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