On Island Profile: Elmo Roebuck

March 6, 2005 – Glancing up at the gigantic mango trees that grace his driveway, Elmo Roebuck says, "I love these trees. They are probably the tallest on the island." His appreciation of the trees reflects his appreciation of the nature abundant in his yard, a mini-orchard – banana trees, lime trees, aloes and flowering plants abound.
The 70-year-old Roebuck appears a happy man today. He has lost none of the vigor which kept him at the top of island politics for decades, and earned him the title "Elder Statesman." He served in eight legislatures, four of those as president, and three as head of the Finance Committee.
Roebuck is a man of many passions. Dancing, politicking, storytelling, teaching, cooking. He can go on for hours telling stories for which he is famous. Or he can hop in the kitchen and whip up some salt fish or, he can sit down and do your taxes, which is how he started out. Sort of.
Walking through his sprawling, but modest home in lower Contant, Roebuck glances down at one of the cardboard boxes of taxes. "I've got to get to these soon," he says.
We wander out to the spacious front porch, "Have a seat. Earle B. sat right here, many times," he says, referring to Earle B. Ottley, another of the defining political figures of the territory's formative, political days.
"I can't tell you how many political decisions have been made right here in this house," he says. If those walls could talk, they could probably reveal more V. I. political history than any official record. Would he be willing to share some of that? His glance says it all: "I'm saving that for my book," he says.
But, getting back to his start. Politics wasn't what Roebuck had in mind when he returned from the Hampton Institute, (now Hampton University), in Virginia in 1956 to teach business at Charlotte Amalie High School, where he had graduated as valedictorian in 1952.
He graduated from Hampton with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration. "I even learned shorthand," he says, eyeing a reporter's painstaking longhand note-taking. Roebuck soon put his talents to use in extra-curricular school activities. "I started a modern dancing class." Modern dancing in St. Thomas? "Yes, I learned that in college. We used to perform at the old V. I. Hotel."
Relaxed in jeans and a cotton shirt, Roebuck keeps his eye on the traffic on the road out front as he chats. "I like to know what's going on," he says. And there is not much that has missed his notice in the last several decades, political, cultural, or social.
Roebuck's sense of community is evident as he talks. The territory is his passion. He notices a group of Addelita Cancryn Junior High School students filing by the house. "That's where my kids went to school," he says. "All three of them. They went to Ulla Muller first, and after Cancryn, they graduated from CAHS."
He laments, "Many people who can afford it send their kids to private schools. I didn't. And my kids got a good education."
Roebuck's eldest son, Elmo Jr., was recently promoted to director of the Division of Corporations and Trademarks in the Lieutenant Governor's office, he says, "Nicole is head of an AIDS program in Atlanta, and Kasim is an engineer there."
After teaching five years at CAHS, and holding several government posts, Roebuck became the youngest Virgin Islander to hold a cabinet-level post in 1964, when then Gov. Ralph M. Paiewonsky named him to head the Department of Housing and Community Renewal.
"That's when the political bug really hit me," Roebuck says. I joined the Unity party under Earle B."
Later, Roebuck left the Unity party to become one of the organizers of the New Democratic party. In 1970, he ran as a Lieutenant Governor candidate with Alexander Farrelly as governor. Though they lost the election it whetted Roebuck's political appetite.
He ran for the Senate in 1972, receiving the largest number of votes of any candidate in the St. Thomas-St. John district. It started his decades-long senate career as "Elmo D., the Man for We."
His biggest accomplishment in all those years? "Shepherding through the Coastal Zone Management Commission. That was momentous legislation. Before, it was just part of the Planning Board. And I initiated the Legislature Post-Auditor office, a system for examining government revenues and department audits – it informed the senators." Roebuck, in fact, held that post, himself, in the 17th Legislature.
"In 1976," he continues, "I received a key from Queen Margareth of Denmark, the Kommander AF Dannebrogordenen, an award of Knighthood. I loved the pomp," he says. "But it has to be returned when I die."
Roebuck is perhaps as well known for his story telling as for his politics, certainly by school children. It's a tradition he learned at the knee of his father, Ector Roebuck, and one he has passed down for more than 40 years.
Roebuck fondles his guitar.
Which is his favorite story? He smiles indulgently – obviously they all are his favorites.
"Did you know there used to be lions on St. Thomas?" He asks. "I'll bet you didn't know that. I tell that to the children, and they look up at me, and they say 'noooo'."
"I dress up in my full African regalia," he says, "and tell them about the lions." Roebuck strums a few chords. "I tell the kids we have goats, we have horses, we have cows, why not lions?"
It seems the hurricane had blown them away after the goat chased them out, and everybody was afraid of the lions.
"Oh, the goat chased them away, me son," Roebuck says. Wherein lies a story. It seems Mr. Goat went to the lion's house one day, strum, strum, and he knocked on the door. "Why, Mr. Goat, said Mr. Lion, do come in." So, Mr. Goat goes in and sits down. And he begins telling Mr. Lion about the 10,000 lions he has killed. "10,000?" says Mr. Lion.
Well, the lion calls his wife, and he calls his son, and he whispers in their ear, "We've got a bad goat here, a real bad goat – you go out the back door and you run away."
Mr. Lion, asks Mr. Goat again,"10,000 lions?" "Oh, yes," says Mr. Goat. "I killed just three today." Well, that's enough for Mr. Lion. He gets up then and runs out the back door, himself, and, there's no more lions.
Roebuck is in his element. He lives on stage, at home or at school. That's where he is happy.
The phone rings. "I know who that is," he says, picking up the phone with a big smile. On the other end of the line is his wife, the former Pierina Jacobs McBrowne. They will soon celebrate their second wedding anniversary.
Ever the politician, Roebuck expresses his disappointment in the current government. "Today we have so many unqualified people in key positions," he says. "Positions that affect our lives, our livelihood. Even the minor things, pot-holes, aren't taken care of. Government service is headed downhill, and it starts at the top. They must set an example."
Roebuck served two governors in an advisory capacity. In 1985, he was named executive assistant in Gov. Juan Luis' office. And in the 90's – coming full circle, in a curious way – Roebuck went to work for his former CAHS dancing student, Gov. Roy L. Schneider, as his special assistant. "Roy was a very good dancer. He used to dance with us at the Hilton," he says.
In November 1998, Roebuck retired from government service. Officially, that is.
Roebuck was listed in the 1999-2000 Millennium edition of "Who's Who in American Politics." The 25th Legislature passed a resolution honoring him for his contributions to the community.
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