March 17, 2006 – Motor Vehicle Bureau inspector Ralph Powell was legendary for being, well, a bit testy, but in recent years, he's mellowed some.
"As you get older, your patience level goes up," he said, sitting behind his desk at St. John's modest facility.
Powell, now 52, has been on this job since 1980, back when Motor Vehicles came under the Public Safety umbrella.
Recent legislation made Motor Vehicles an independent agency, but Powell doesn't see that much has changed other than the name that signs the driver's licenses.
Powell, who serves as supervisor on St. John, said that the St. John branch is short staffed, with only four employees when it needs seven.
"We are working with a skeleton crew," he said.
As for his reputation for being difficult, Powell said that people sometimes don't want to "meet the requirements" when getting their vehicles inspected.
"People could make you cranky," he said.
He said he bends over backward to help people and treats them with respect until they cross the line.
When asked about the challenges of the job, he pointed to a back door left open that allowed the air conditioning to escape.
He said that people arrive when the bureau opens at 8 a.m. to get their vehicles inspected, but complain that they have to make the 8 a.m. ferry. He also said that some people don't bring their Social Security card when applying for their driver's license even though showing the card is mandatory.
"Or they come without the application," he said.
As for the positives, Powell said he meets some interesting people.
"And I'm close to retirement," he said.
Powell had a tip for folks who need to get their vehicles inspected. He said the first and the last weeks of the month are the busiest, so the middle weeks are better bets.
The St. John-born Powell returned to the Virgin Islands after spending more than four years in the U.S. Army. He said he traveled far and wide with stints in Panama, Saigon, Bangkok and Germany.
After attending Julius E. Sprauve School, he went on to graduate from Charlotte Amalie High School. He then left the territory to study automotive technology at Lincoln Tech in Union, N.J.
Five years on St. Thomas at the Public Works and Finance Departments followed his Army career.
Powell keeps busy when he's not inspecting the island's vehicles. He's a landlord with rental properties on St. John, goes island hopping in his 22-foot power boat, Century, and plays keyboard now and then with any of the island's bands.
Calling himself "unmarried," but with girlfriends, he's also a father of three young women. He said that Kishna, 33, and Tanisha, 30, live in Philadelphia. His youngest, former Miss St. John Tanja Powell, is 20 and now lives in Florida.
Laughing, Powell said his daughters send him care packages of towels and clothes, including the bright coral-colored T-shirt he wore the day of his interview.
Powell is firmly rooted on St. John. He said the sunshine, the summertime and the crystal clear water keeps him home.
"I was born here and I've always loved it," he said.
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