Sept. 5, 2006 – Friends remembered Little Switzerland founder Helen Fairburn Kelbert, who died Monday at age 93 at Schneider Regional Medical Center, as a lady with impeccable taste, a patron of the arts and a generous philanthropist.
"She was a personal mentor to me," Sue Robinson of the Draughting Shaft recalled Tuesday.
St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce Director Joe Aubain said that Kelbert was a stickler for the fine details. "Everything had to be as close to perfection as you could get," he said.
St. Thomas attorney Tom Bolt said she had style and grace, adding that a whole cadre of younger business women looked to emulate her.
The Rev. Jeff Gargano at St. Thomas Reformed Church said that Kelbert was an unassuming person who loved the arts.
He said when she was about 92, Kelbert expressed an interest in flying to New York for an opera performance. Gargano said that friends organized a first-class plane ticket, but she wasn't interested, preferring to fly coach as she always had.
Gargano also spoke about Kelbert's facility with languages. "Mandarin was her second language," Gargano said.
He said that Kelbert, who was born in England, lived in China as a child while her father worked as an architect for the Chinese Postal System.
Gargano said Kelbert also spoke French, German and Italian and had a working knowledge of Spanish.
After spending her childhood in Peking and Shanghai, she attended school in Switzerland. She then returned to China before moving to Vienna to study music and German.
Afterward, she moved to New York City, later marrying Rudolph S. Kelbert. She served as his secretary and assistant.
In 1953 the Kelberts decided to establish a business on St. Thomas and opened Little Switzerland in 1954.
After her husband died in 1963, she and brother-in-law Lee Kelbert operated Little Switzerland until they sold it in 1980.
She served on the Chamber of Commerce's board of directors and was active in the St. Thomas Council on the Arts, the Retailers Association, Toneskolen School of Music, the Ballet Theater of the Virgin Islands, the St. Thomas Historic Trust, the Antilles School board and the League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands.
Gargano added that Kelbert was a generous woman who contributed to various organizations. "She's given generously to the rebuilding efforts of the church since Hurricane Marilyn," he said, referring to the Reformed Church.
John Jowers, former director of the Council on the Arts, said Kelbert served as an anonymous angel to gifted students by allowing them to pursue their talents in art and dance when funding was not available elsewhere.
He said she also anonymously assisted the V.I. Mental Health Association in its holiday giving for clients.
Gargano said a service for Kelbert will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Reformed Church. She'll be laid to rest beside her husband in Queens, N.Y.
She is survived by a sister, Florence Fairburn, of St. Thomas and a cousin in England.
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