March 1, 2006 — "Wow," said Joe Aubain looking out on Rotary Club of St. Thomas II Wednesday afternoon as its 26th Person of the Year. He greeted a hearty round of applause and a standing ovation with a hesitant smile. "Thank you," he finally managed, "I'm actually speechless."
Aubain has been anything but speechless in his long career, serving the island community of which he is so much a part — especially downtown Charlotte Amalie. He has been the voice behind the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce for the past 16 years as executive director, and for the past six years served as president of the Humane Society of St. Thomas. The list goes on.
Announcement of the club's annual winner is top secret information. Elliott McIver Davis, who traditionally gives the speech, was not at all at a loss for words. He couldn't find enough, as he steadily built up the suspense to Wednesday's winner. Davis is known for his speeches, a duty he obviously relishes.
"Our Person of the Year was born in the Virgin Islands … or maybe not," Davis said with a smile. "When he returned home from college, he almost immediately became engaged in the life of our community. Yet, he is so unassuming and self-effacing that, although many of us are familiar with the name, not nearly so many would recognize his face. That is, until today."
Aubain appeared more like a kid on a graduation stage than a community icon. "I'm used to being with Mac around this time of day," he said, "but that's because we are usually at the gym at the same time."
Addressing the issue at hand, Aubain said, "It's an honor no one ever gets by themselves. It's my family and my friends. My family allowed me to leave the nest and to be different. Look around you at where we live," he said. "It's up to me and all of us to make our home a better place. We have to roll up our sleeves and go at it."
Aubain paused. "I'm really not good at this," he said, prompting a chorus of "You're doing fine."
He spoke of the Humane Society, whose membership has increased from 400 to 2,300 this year. "I want to thank you for supporting us, those of you who do, and those of you who say you do."
Aubain broached another cause close to his heart: downtown Charlotte Amalie. "I work downtown, and I see what's happening. It's not the government. It's us," he said. "Those of you who remember Williams and Daniels upstairs, other places, we have to regain control of downtown. We have to bring it back to the tourist destination it used to be."
Actually, many who have attended the Destination Downtown parties or the Miracle on Main Street would be familiar with Aubain's face as well as his name. He can always be seen strolling down the street, looking at each booth, stopping to chat with everybody, looking over the event like a proud papa. It's something he cares deeply about.
Another downtown cause of Aubain's, Davis said, is the Friends of Fort Christian, whose efforts have resulted in the magnificent refurbishment of the fort. Davis noted Aubain was a member of the Cruise Ship Task Force that negotiated a five-year operating agreement with the Florida Cruise Association.
"But," Davis said, "our recipient's labor of love is, of course, the Humane Society. With the aid of our 1999 Person of the Year, Randy Knight, another person noted for legendary generosity, this vital organization has experienced a renaissance that can only be termed as astonishing."
Davis noted Aubain and Knight's work toward the new Animal Care Campus, scheduled for groundbreaking this spring, and their efforts in getting the animal anti-cruelty bill passed.
Knight, who was entrusted with this year's duty of getting the recipient to the Rotary meeting on one pretext or another, said later it proved a real challenge. "He kept saying he couldn't come, he had too many meetings today," Knight said. "I told him he absolutely had to come because one of our big donors to the Humane Society was being honored." Knight said he had hinted at a name, without really naming anybody. "Then we got here, and I looked around and there were no big donors, no millionaires sitting around."
No matter. Aubain's astonishment at the award was writ large.
As Davis presented Aubain with the annual Don Quixote Lladro statuette, he said, "[He] dreams the impossible dream and fights the unbeatable foe. I would venture to say that, if he still has an unreachable star, it is only a function of time before he will reach it and beyond."
Aubain said later that something not mentioned in all his accolades means the most to him.
"Making people aware of HIV/AIDS is the one thing that has probably had the most impact on me because it is specific with life and death. When the first person passed away here, it spurred me into action. It was impossible to get medication here, and people were afraid of being ostracized it they spoke out. The community was too small."
With a small support group, Aubain formed SHINE (Serenity House International Neighborhood Endowment). "We wanted to create a hospice, but that didn't work," Aubain said. "But we partnered with a group from New York, and they got us medication, sort of an underground railroad operation. Giving someone medication is giving them the gift of hope.
"To this day, working with these wonderful people," Aubain said, "and having to say goodbye to people who didn't make it, has stuck with me all these years." He said he is still active in supporting HIV/AIDS. "Education is the key," he said.
Shaun Pennington, Source publisher, was a board member of SHINE in the mid-80s. "Joe was totally the impetus of the organization," she said Wednesday. "He spurred all the community outreach."
The annual awards are the oldest continuing award of Rotary in the Caribbean. In describing the award, Davis said, "Over the past quarter century we have recognized more than a score of individuals who have consistently, and against all odds, lived a life of service to others. The Rotarian idea is to practice selflessness, to place the needs of others before our own."
Many of those 25 past award recipients were present at Wednesday's luncheon, including LaVerne Ragster, University of theVirgin Islands president; Sen. Lorraine Berry; Dilsa Capdeville; Edward Thomas; Dr. Alfred Heath; Suzanne Robinson; and Shaun Pennington.
Prior recipients are:
– 2005 Suzanne Robinson
– 2004 Rodney Miller
– 2003 LaVerne Ragster
– 2002 Elliot "Mac" Davis
– 2001 Shaun A. Pennington
– 2000 John P. deJongh Jr.
– 1999 Randy Knight
– 1998 Nick Pourzal
– 1997 Lorraine Berry
– 1996 Vinnie Mohanani
– 1995 Juel T.R. Molloy
– 1994 Edward E. Thomas Sr.
– 1993 Leona Bryant
– 1992 Verne A. Hodge
– 1991 Athniel "Addie" Ottley
– 1990 Dilsa Capdeville
– 1989 Ron de Lugo
– 1988 Irvin "Brownie" Brown
– 1987 Alexander A. Farrelly
– 1986 Dr. Alfred O. Heath
– 1985 Calvin Wheatley
– 1984 Costas Coulianos
– 1983 Dr. Roy L. Schneider
– 1982 Albert A. Aubain
– 1981 Wilbur "Bill" Lamotta
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