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On Island Profile: Sanseric Powell

March 13, 2005 — Sanseric Powell heads slowly to his favorite armchair to settle in for his interview. He is an affable man, easily approachable with a quick smile and quiet humor. He is amused that someone would want hear about his travels through life but admits that during his 85 years he has amassed a treasure chest of experiences and memories.
When Powell was born in Frederiksted, St. Croix, the world was a much different place. The year was 1919 and Queen Cross Street, where he was born, as well as the rest of the town, was bustling with activity. His mother was a housewife and his father was a sailor, who, when he was not away at sea, fed his family by being a fisherman. "I was the product of my mother's second marriage," Powell said. "Before me she had two sets of twins and another boy. I was the first of the second marriage." Using his fingers to keep track, he counted off five brothers and sisters born after him. "There were two boys and three girls, only two are still alive," he says.
The Powell family lived in the upper floor of a two-story building a block west of the apothecary. Below his home was a dry goods market. With his soft gray hair framing his face, Powell takes a minute to contemplate the past, the myriad of lines on his forehead deepening as he brings the memories into focus. His earliest memories were when he was about 13 years old. "In those days steamships used to bring food goods here; the children used to run to the bay side when the ships came in." Much of his boyhood was spent around the sea. "Most days the kids went to the bayside to get 'peck-peck' fish. Those were the fish that the boats didn't want, we would help pull up the boats and we would get fish."
Sometimes young Powell went to the "Oval" to play or watch a game of soccer or cricket. "The 'Oval' was located where Claude O. Markoe School is," Powell said. "I don't know why they called it the 'Oval' they just did. There were no houses there, just wide open pasture."
Powell began his education in 1925 at Frederiksted Public Grammar School which was located on Hospital Street. Powell observed the shell of the building was still intact. "It was a good school, they even had a library," he said as he alternately chewed on a toothpick or held it between the fingers of his delicately manicured hands.
Students who graduated from public grammar school attended Frederiksted Junior High School and then either went to vocational school or senior high school. After junior high, Powell attended the St. Croix Vocational Institute which was located in estate Anna's Hope. "The Institute taught all the trades – farming, auto mechanics, masonry, electrician, – you name it they had it," Powell said. "They had cane fields there too, we used to cut cane and sell it; we raised okra, boulangé [eggplant], chibil [a local herb], and thyme."
He had always been interested in auto mechanics so that was the trade he learned. "At the Vocational Institute we had a teacher named Web, he used to teach…," Powell tilts his head back and gazes off as if trying to visualize his life in 1935. 'My memory isn't what it used to be," he says with a chuckle. In 1937, after vocational school, Powell attended the Civilian Conservation Corps. Powell explains what the corps was all about. "It was a semi-military camp in La Grande Princess where students could reinforce trades they learned." Young men, aged 18 to 25 lived at the camp for two years, and for a monthly salary of $12 to $25 dollars worked on the island's infrastructure by building roads and parks, and working on reforestation, soil erosion control and agriculture.
Powell said he tried to enlist in the army but was rejected because of a childhood encounter with a rock. "I was a boy in the sixth grade; I went behind the church to relieve myself. A boy hit me in the eye with a rock; my vision was never the same after that."
Powell's education in mechanics led him to later employment in the General Motors plant in Puerto Rico, and several large auto repair centers in New York City and St. Croix. Eventually, in 1962, he opened the first company-owned Texaco Gas station in St. Croix, which he named Powell and Sons.
"I was fortunate in a sense and unfortunate in another," Powell observed. "My mother died when I was a teen, and I went to live with my aunt and uncle, who was a janitor in one of the schools. My mom died but I was able to continue school."
Playing music was also one of Powell's passions. "When I left the vocational school I got interested in music, I started with the cymbals," Powell says with a laugh. "I had a short stretch with the clarinet, but then I took up the bass." Powell played with the Rhythm Makers, led by the late musician, Archie Thomas. "I was with him from the beginning." Powell tried to recall the names of the clubs in Frederiksted where the band played. "There was one upstairs from Chase Bank and another one around the corner. Man, I'm loosing my memory" he says, shaking his head.
In 1940 Powell went to St. Thomas to play. "I left and went to St. Thomas with Alexander John's band to play a gig – I ended up staying four years." Powell was smiling when he claimed he could not remember why the one-night gig lasted four years, but he later admitted, "Those were the days my first daughter was born."
Powell's eldest daughter, Dr. Agatha Powell Nelson, still lives in St. Thomas. She recently retired after 20 years as a psychology professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas campus. Powell is also the father of two sons; Anthony and Sanseric Powell, two daughters; Agatha and Cordelia, and one step daughter; Grace Ann Hodge.
Powell's work and music led him to live in Puerto Rico and, in 1951 he moved to Long Island, N.Y., where he lived and worked until a snowstorm convinced him to return to the tropic isle of his birth.
"We were playing a club in Harlem," Powell recounted. "The weight of the snow broke the glass and everyone ran. We didn't know that while we were having a good time it snowed 17 inches." Powell said he had to leave his car and spend the night in the city with his daughter. "The next day I had to walk through 17 inches of snow and every time I put my foot down I had to struggle to get my foot away. From that day I planned to get back to St. Croix."
Powell returned home in 1962 and operated his gas station until 1977. Following that he was employed by Ann Abramson Enterprises, and the V.I. Police Department as Inspection Lane supervisor. He retired in 1988.
Today, Powell spends his twilight years with Rita Harris Powell, his second wife of over 35 years. They are both active members of Rotary West.
About his life Powell says, "God has been gracious to me. I am heading toward 86 years old, if the good Lord lets me. I've taken risks in my life. I've moved from place to place. I've lived a good life."

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