This is my island in the sun
Where my people have toiled since time begun
I could feel tears begin to tingle as Doc’s velvet tones greeted mourners making their way down the slope. It didn’t seem right that this warm and vibrant man was lying in repose at the foot of the stage and not sitting on a stool in his usual spot on the stage, a guitar resting on his knee.
But the open casket could not diminish Eugene Alexander Petersen – Doc – because his presence was everywhere. In the four guitars and a banjo resting amongst floral arrangements of sunset colours lining the stage; in the saddle draped over a bench; in the video showing snippets from oh so many performances; and in the mourners, many wearing madras, who came to show their love and respect for a man who touched so many lives – two and four-legged.
My links to this remarkable man are brief but memorable. Over my nine years on St Croix I met Doc only a handful of times. But our penultimate meeting, instead of the agreed upon hour lasted two and a half hours as we sat in his beach house and talked about his life, his music, his hopes. Doc had agreed to be part of a book I was writing about the island that has embraced me. Crucian Fusion, I told him, was to be a series of essays, tales and conversations. My conversation with Doc Petersen was called ‘A Calypsonian Vet’.
Like today, I laughed and cried as we spoke. We laughed about his story of the mother superior deciding young Eugene should play the mellophone, then the drums. Doc paused in the telling, “I wasn’t a good student.” I cried when, after I told him it was my father who introduced me to calypso, he sang Jamaica Farewell with me.
So whilst my links might be tenuous it is the measure of Doc’s gracious acceptance, his innate kindness, his sense of fun and his sometimes wicked sense of humour that make today poignant for me.
Oh, island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
Doc was passionate about history and traditions being passed on, and on, and on, and to that end he was instrumental in helping establish scholarships www.uvi.edu for students to experience different cultures whilst promoting Virgin Island culture in other countries. Specifically Denmark and Ghana, the two places of historical importance to these islands.
He certainly did his bit. He sang on the mainland, in Denmark, in Germany and around the Caribbean. He sang with Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights. He worked with Monty Thompson and the Caribbean Dance Company as they toured. He was singing until a few days before his death.
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest, waters
Your shining sand
The testament to his deep love of St Croix, Doc’s island, is seen many facets he has touched. Not only was he the first Virgin Islander to gain a veterinarian’s degree, he trained and raced horses, he was a calypsonian, a balladeer, an actor, a talkshow host and a radio presenter. And, although never married, a devoted uncle.
As Doc’s voice continued to issue from the speakers I thought about the words he was singing.
Never let me miss carnival
With calypso songs philosophical
Because whilst Doc could laugh, so too could he passionate about the serious side of life. His fervent belief that the Revised Organic Act of 1954, which declared the Virgin Islands an unincorporated territory, should be replaced by a Virgin Islands constitution, led him to be one of the delegates of the Fifth Constitutional Convention in 2009. That proposed constitution did not pass.
Doc was a West man and believed strongly in the redevelopment of his home town, Frederiksted, to which end he served on the Frederiksted Economic Development Board, as well as the WTJX Public Television board, and was determined Island Center – the venue where we all gathered this morning – should return to its former glory as a centre for the performing arts, not only performers from the islands but from around the world.
The coffin closed and Willard John, another cultural icon of St Croix took over as master of ceremonies. Music came from Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights, from a choir from the University of the Virgin Islands, and later from Tony Romano. Mr John gave the eulogy, then many spoke of their affection and respect for Doc, including the Governor of the Virgin Islands.
Unscheduled to speak, I watched as The Honorable Albert Bryan Jr stood behind the lectern and told how much Eugene Petersen meant to him. He ended by suggesting the world, St Croix, needed more people like Doc.
However, for me, the most telling words came from Willard John when he spoke extemporaneously. He said, “Doc was not a preacher, he practiced. He had a calming manner, a balanced spirit. His core beliefs were never reduced to words, but showed by his actions.”
After the benediction people danced out to the Ten Sleepless Knights playing Oh When the Saints Go Marching In. It was a fitting end to the celebration of Doc’s full and varied life.
As I sit now and write about Doc, I am grateful I knew a small part of the man and my thoughts return to the words he sang
As morning breaks
The heaven on high
I lift my heavy load to the sky
Sun comes down with a burning glow
Mingles my sweat with the earth below
Oh, island in the sun!