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Harmony in the tropics
Weaving differences together can make the sweetest music
When Ruth Pflanz Frank ’46 stepped off a ferry onto tiny St. John, in the US Virgin Islands, she thought she’d “landed on a movie set for Gauguin’s life in the South Seas,” she says. The lush mahogany forests, steep green slopes, turquoise water, and sugar-sand beaches were “heavenly,” she recalls. That was in 1959. A permanent resident ever since, Frank muses that the double rainbow arcing over neighboring islands on the day of her arrival was truly a good omen.
How did this upstate New Yorker find happiness on a rugged little Caribbean island? The changes and variety in her life weren’t exactly planned; as Frank says with a shrug, sometimes “God opens other doors.”
Frank (universally known as “Sis”) plainly states, “I was not a serious student.” Although she was enrolled as an art major, she says, “my main subject at Skidmore was riding.” She also has fond memories of downtown bars like those at the Worden and Colonial. (Skidmore’s Honor Roll often listed Ruth Pflanz, but it wasn’t her; it was Ruth Griswald Pflanz ’45, her mother, a Pratt Institute graduate who was continuing her art studies at Skidmore.) After graduation Frank joined her mother’s interior-design business in Norwich, N.Y., and when two customers found that work had stalled on a house they were building in the Caribbean, they enlisted her to expedite construction. Off she went through Door No. 1.
“I was fascinated by island life,” she says, and with the income from a house- and villa-renting service she started, she was able to stay. The lucrative tourist industry was still in its infancy, but word was spreading about this tiny tropical gem. Both its natural beauty and its “don’t worry, be happy” lifestyle enchanted her. In those days St. John was a sweet, slow, out-of-the-way paradise.
Door No. 2 was opened by Carl Frank, whom Sis describes as “an older actor with lots of charm, and a brilliant businessman.” She had met him when he visited St. John, and in 1961 he moved to the island permanently. They married the next year, and Carl, one of the actors in the famous radio broadcast, became Sis’s business partner in Holiday Homes, a real-estate management and insurance company. But in 1972, after just ten years of marriage, Carl died. A year later, when Sis decided to sell the thriving business (still successful today), she calmed her horrified mother by predicting that “God would open another door.”
And in walked Rudy Wells. A musician from Trinidad, he was looking for a manager for his local youth orchestra—a steel band that Frank had admired for several years. “I was always crazy about music,” she recalls, especially the “marvelous, marvelous” steel-pan bands that began in Trinidad and used discarded oil barrels as instruments. With enthusiasm and availability her chief credentials, she agreed to take over management of the young players, mostly boys, with some trepidation. But more than thirty years later she says, “I had a lot of potential that I had never used—I guess I was a frustrated promoter all my life and didn’t know it—and I just loved it.”
The band, Steel Unlimited, played with such success from 1972 to 1976 that Wells was eager to expand the enterprise and soon proposed, “Let’s have a school.” Since those propitious words were uttered, Frank has been the director, linchpin, and chief fundraiser for St. John School of the Arts. (Wells is the president.)
From its incorporation in 1981, SJSA used whatever space was available, often churches or restaurants, and offered classes for children and adults in steel band, piano, dance, art, and the Orff Schulwerk method of early-childhood music education. Now with a home of its own—a handsome two-story building designed in West Indian style—SJSA annually enrolls about 150 students for more classes, including Kindermusik and Afro-Caribbean dance. The school’s goal, according to Frank, is to “expand the minds and bodies of children and adults through the arts, so they can experience the joy of self-expression, along with the discipline of training in the arts.” Frank must have felt the sweet blush of success when a tenor pan player wrote of her experience: “Work. Sweat. Pleasure. Pain. I got a new perspective on life and found out how much you can learn from exploring. I learned how much fun education can be.”
|“The goal is to expand their minds and bodies through the arts, so they can experience the joy of self-expression and the discipline of training.”
As St. John School of the Arts nears its twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, Frank is having a CD made of the original LP recording of Steel Unlimited music (to order a CD, call 340-779-4322 or write SJSA, Box 180, St. John, VI 00831). Revenue from the sale of LPs, tapes, and T-shirts went toward European tours in the 1990s and today supports scholarships for needy students.
When Jeanne Bresciani ’72 visited the school in 1990 to lead a workshop in the Isadora Duncan dance technique, she saw how universally St. Johnians—young and old, white and black, housekeepers and philanthropists— love and respect Frank. Bresciani was impressed too, and wrote of her: “Not only is she a beacon for the people of the island that she loves; she is a shining example of dedication to the ideals of racial harmony, creativity for youth, and lasting contributions to society.”
Anne Hockenos, former associate editor of Scope, participates in winter yoga camps on St. John.