While I was out and about this weekend I ran into a taxi driver who once did me a great kindness. We sat and chatted for a bit about what’s going on in the world and I questioned him about his opinions on the development of St. John and tourism today. The conversation led to a heartfelt story about his mother who came to St. John from Jost Van Dyke in the 60’s. He told me how she had experienced the generosity of a stranger that led to her eventually being a self-sustaining single mother of four on a tourism driven career path.
A few days later, after thinking about her story with a great deal of questions that remained unanswered, I called him and asked if I could interview her. He paused for a moment and said that it would mean a lot to him, and to her, if someone wrote down her story. So, I’m going to try to do it justice as best I can.
Doreen Callwood contemplates her past and St. John’s future.
Doreen Callwood came to St. John from Jost Van Dyke on January 18, 1960. Yes, she remembered the exact date…This beautiful woman has an amazing memory at 75-years young! The Jost she came from had no power, but she compares it to the then similarly sleepy St. John. Doreen came here for opportunity, citing that it was rougher to get jobs or a decent salary on Jost. And opportunity she would find.
Cruz Bay – 1966 – From VI Port Authority
She came to St. John to visit her cousin who told her that she could find her work if she came to stay. Doreen replied, “Give me a month,” and returned to Jost to inform her parents of her decision. Her mother didn’t want her to go.
“Cause they were getting older. And I was the only one left with them.“ She told her mother, “I will be more of a help to you, if I go and I work.”
So, she left her family on Jost and hitched a ride to St. John on a small fishing boat.
Her cousin had taken up working for Julius E. Sprauve, Sr. who had agreed to hire Doreen as well. This man is a Love City legend. You may recognize the name if you’re familiar with the school in the center of town, his namesake. This man did SO much for this island and I’m a bit ashamed to say that I didn’t know much about him prior to chatting with Doreen.
Mr. Sprauve would eventually hold the first St. John senate seat, traveling to and from St. Thomas for municipal meetings on a regular basis. He went to great lengths to improve education, health care and welfare and facilitated a land purchase called the “Homestead Act” that allowed native born St. Johnians to purchase discounted plots of land near town. He had a great deal to do with the establishment of the National Park. To tell of his achievements would be its own article; or likely a book.
St. Johns first bank – Photo from the St. John Historical Society
He orchestrated the first bank on island, offering a discounted lease for Chase Manhattan to set up shop in the large white building across the street from what is now Woody’s. It was in this building that Doreen took her first jobs on St. John. Where De Coal Pot is now located was a grocery store. There was a bar upstairs as well as living quarters. Mr. Sprauve owned this building and in it Doreen started her new life.
“He started my whole career…He was so good to me,” she smiled.
Doreen worked for him for four and a half years, living in one of the apartments in the upper level of the building. She worked in the market from 8-3 and in the bar from 5-10:30. Just prior to her arrival, Mr. Sprauve’s wife had passed away, so in her “free time” she cooked and cleaned up for her employer and the three of his four sons who still lived at home. She exhibited an incredibly strong work ethic from the beginning of her time here, giving her many opportunities throughout her life.
Mr. Sprauve also taught Doreen about handling her finances. He told her to take the money she made in the shop and open a bank book. And use her money from the bar for food. If she didn’t have enough money for groceries, she was allowed to buy things on credit at the market.
Doreen recalls trying to get for her mother anything she would need. When the small boats would arrive each week to sell fish, Doreen would send food back to her family on Jost. These small, locally constructed vessels, known as “Tortola Sloops,” were the only regular transportation between islands at the time. Eventually, after the passing of her father, her mother would join her on St. John.
We were interrupted in our conversation when an appliance in the kitchen suddenly began beeping. She looked down and shook her head and said, “the current keep going and coming…mashing up my things.”
The frequent power surges from the inefficiencies of our islands’ power company (WAPA) has cost Doreen THREE refrigerators since Hurricane Irma took most of her roof off in 2017. The hurricane damaged home was repaired by the Resilient Housing Initiative, a group of non-profits, most of which are based on St. John. Unfortunately, no one can seem to fix the power surges costing people thousands of dollars in broken appliances due to rolling blackouts and frequent outages. Do better WAPA.
But, as I’m learning quickly, Doreen is a perpetual optimist and immediately mentions the COVID relief $250 credit WAPA has granted to individual account holders. I smiled.
This led our conversation to the lack of power on Jost when she was young. Her mother had wished she would know the day when Jost “got light.” And she did, eventually. By the 1980’s, the British Virgin Islands had extended power to Jost, Virgin Gorda and Anegada.
When Mr. Sprauve passed away in 1965, Doreen left the bank building and started a new job as a cashier at the commissary at the Cinnamon Bay Campground. Sometimes, when it was slow, she would help in the kitchen. I asked her what she liked about her work at Cinnamon…she stayed for 26 years!
“I like that,” she said with a smile. “Cause I meet different people and I hear different things, givin’ you ideas. When friendly people come from the states, I would help them and they would give me ideas. We had a good workin’ relationship.”
“We used to call them hippy,” she laughed. “We had fun.”
Thus began her career in tourism. She loved big check-in days and the people coming and going. It felt good to go to work. She recalls that maybe Cinnamon reminded her a bit of home as she described the cement cabins and tent sites. Her cousin owns the iconic “Ivan’s Stress Free” on Jost, now a bar, campground and guesthouse operation one bay over from the Soggy Dollar Bar. Back then it was open for camping as well.
“It was the same kind of living,” she said, in reference to her experiences at Cinnamon.
Vintage Caneel Bay and North Shore views
She eventually learned to drive and bought her own car to drive the several miles on North Shore road to Cinnamon each day. They had a bus, she recalled, but Doreen enjoyed the freedom of getting in her own car every day for the scenic drive.
Her face softened at the memories of her youth and she looked at me and said “Dey gave you a good job. To write things about back then.”
Caneel Bay and Cinnamon shared management back then. One day, Doreen’s long-time manager approached her and asked if she would be interested in a new position with the company.
“Miss Callwood, you know, with all the years that you put in to Cinnamon Bay,” he said. “I would like to give you first preference to run the taxi stand at Caneel.”
The Round Shop – Caneel Bay gift shop
“I run the whole show ya know,” she said when I asked what the job entailed. I laughed.
She ran the taxi stand through most of the 80’s. She scheduled all of the drivers and dispatched rides to town and other nearby beaches for the guests at the affluent resort. AND, she kept the taxi drivers in line and up to date on their paper work.
Caneel Bay restaurant
“I used to go to the park and fix all of their papers because we had to deal with the park. So, I have to go up there and fix everybody’s papers. They actin like they can’t read nor write,” she laughed. “I used to do it so that everybody could just make a dollar and be happy.”
Eventually this kindness came back for Doreen once again…
In the early 90’s she left her jobs at Cinnamon and Caneel to help a friend clean her guest house. One day, the woman’s son came in to find her making up a bed. He was a taxi driver and a fireman at the time.
He said to her, “Miss Doreen, I have something I would like to sell. And I would like to ask you to buy it.”
She said, “What do you have for me?”
“I have a medallion,” he responded.
The taxi drivers on island each hold a coveted medallion that allows them to operate legally under the VI Taxi Commission. There are only a certain number in existence and they are expensive. And hard to come by.
“I look at you. Working with tourists, talking so nice about tourists, helping my mother…You would be a good taxi driver,” he said to her. “I want to sell my medallion to someone who will keep the history going on St. John.”
He offered her the medallion of a $60,000 value for $5,000. She said she had no idea what a medallion was at the time. Turns out, it is a piece of metal the size of a fifty cent piece that eventually allowed Doreen, a single mother, to pay off her home, take care of her children and keep saving for a rainy day.
The son came back the next day and Doreen decided to take a chance and buy the medallion. She wasn’t able at the time to pay the full amount up front, so, remembering the credit accounts she used at Mr. Sprauve’s market, she asked him to go to the Taxi Commission with her to set up a payment plan.
“I learned lots of things from Mr. Sprauve,” she smiled. She insists that her dear friend and mentor may be gone from this life, but he is here in spirit.
“A lot of the things he teach me, I take seriously. And they guide me through my life. I am so happy that I met him.”
She paid off the medallion in three years. And drove taxi for Caneel Bay for twenty. At 72, Doreen was still a taxi driver when Irma hit.
She has lived through Hugo, Marylin, Irma and Maria. She has lost three children and gone through a divorce. She lost her roof in Irma. Doreen has suffered hardship, but barely glazed over any of that in our chat. She focuses mostly on the gifts and the kindness she has received in this life.
But, when the conversation turned to Irma, her face hardened a bit.
“It pains me to see how the place get mashed up,” she remarked. “That Irma terrible.”
“And then after Irma, we trying to get ourselves put back. Here comes Corona. Tourists gone. Down the drain. No ship comin. People ain’t comin like before. People can’t get their bills paid.”
Laurien Carlan Callwood, her last living son, the same man who began his mother’s story for me, now drives taxi with that same medallion. Doreen hopes that he will one day soon be able to reap the benefits that she did from that precious token.
I tell my son, “Don’t give up. Just keep on pushin’.’”
As I was leaving her modest home overlooking Cruz Bay on that cloudy afternoon, I looked at her and said, “Miss Doreen, you are the picture of Karma.”
She puts a lot of good in and gets a lot of good back out. We could all take a lesson from Doreen.