Gov. Juan Luis dies at 70


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ST. THOMAS - Gov. Juan Luis, the longest serving Virgin Islands governor, died Saturday at age 70.

Colleagues described Luis as a true public servant - kind, modest, and a man of the people.

Born in Vieques, Puerto Rico, Luis moved with his family to St. Croix soon afterward. He graduated as valedictorian from Christiansted High School in 1958 and went on to Inter-American University in Puerto Rico. He served in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged in 1968 as a sergeant. 

Returning home to St. Croix, he taught at Christiansted Grammar School and worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1972, Luis was elected to the 10th Legislature at age 32. After serving one term, he was invited to be ICM gubernatorial candidate Cyril King's running mate in the 1974 election.

The team won in a run-off election against Alexander Farrelly and Ruby Rouss and served together for three years. When King died in office in January 1978, Luis became governor. 

He ran for governor in November 1978 as an independent candidate along with running mate Henry Millin.

The team won despite facing a popular and formidable opponent - former Delegate to Congress Ron deLugo.

In the 1982 election, Luis selected Julio Brady to be his running mate when Millin decided to run against Luis for the territory's top job. The newly formed pair won and Luis served the territory for a second term.

Brady, who now is a sitting V.I. Superior Court judge, said Luis made an impression on him before he hired Brady as federal programs coordinator in Luis' first term.

"He initiated all kinds of things. He brought the first desalination plants to WAPA," Brady said, referring to the V.I. Water and Power Authority.

Luis developed the position of federal programs coordinator to develop better relationships with federal government agencies and funnel additional money into the territory, Brady said.

"He was as very innovative kind of guy," Brady said.

Brady said Luis was a man of his word, and was not vindicative or disparaging of others.

"He was one of the most self-effacing people that I have ever met," Brady said.

Retired Superior Court Judge Edgar Ross was attorney general under King's administration when King died and helped Luis transition into his new role. He was also a long-time friend who played dominos with him in their later years.

But their first encounter still stands out in Ross' memory.

Ross was in high school, playing baseball for the Marlins in a summer league. Luis, who had fastball clocked in the low 90 mph range, was home from college for the summer and played for the Giants, Ross said.

"He struck me out in three pitches and that's the first thing I remember," Ross said.

The two later became friends, were in the ICM party together and worked on each other's campaigns over the years. Luis appointed Ross to the bench in 1980.

"I think the Virgin Islands has lost a legend, not only in terms of his political achievements but in the person he was," Ross said.

The Luis family was very close to the Golden family, and Arnold Golden and his daughter Ann Golden remembered the former governor for his leadership and friendship.

"I started my public service career because of him," Ann Golden said Sunday.

She said Luis provided her first job after college and inspired her.

"He is a trusted friend of the family, but more than that, a humble public servant who represented those without a voice," she said.

She said Luis was a tough manager and a fighter who never gave up on the causes he believed in.

"When he won, the people won, and that's the legacy that he left," Ann Golden said.

Her father, Arnold Golden, served as Public Works commissioner, Commerce commissioner, St. Croix administrator and special assistant to the governor throughout Luis' administration.

"He was very dedicated person, to the people and the islands. He was very humane in his actions, a very caring person," he said. "We were very, very, good friends."

Former Sen. Holland Redfield also said Luis launched his political career, appointing him to the Public Services Commission and encouraging his run for Senate in 1984. Redfield said Luis was a trusted confidant to many politicians, and many sitting senators count him as a personal mentor and friend.

"He would never disengage, he would always engage in the political process," Redfield said. "He was the type of person you could connect to."

Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s introduction to public service was also by Luis' hand, when Luis nominated deJongh to serve as a member of the V.I. Industrial Development Commission as a young man.

"I will be forever grateful to Governor Luis for the confidence he expressed in me by nominating me to serve on this most important board," the governor said in a written statement.

As governor, Luis helped modernize the territory's schools, health-care system, and expand the airports on St. Thomas and St. Croix, deJongh said. He acquired land on St. Croix to help homeowners and further develop the territory's agriculture industry, deJongh added.

"We have lost two great Virgin Islands leaders in one week," deJongh said. "Former Lt. Gov. Derek Hodge, who died earlier this week, and former Gov. Juan Luis were political giants in the territory, and both did tremendous things to modernize the Virgin Islands and bring greater prosperity to our citizens."

Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis said Luis was an influential politician.

"Gov. Luis was well loved by the people of this territory. He will be remembered for assuming the mantle of leadership upon the sudden and tragic loss of Gov. Cyril E. King and for inspiring more of our Hispanic community to become involved in the Virgin Islands' political arena," Francis said in a statement. "I especially admire that throughout his terms as governor and since leaving public office, he remained humble and a true man of the people. He will be missed."

Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen said the St. Croix hospital bears the name of Luis to honor him for his role in building modern hospitals for the territory.

She said he also worked to end double sessions in the public school system and oversaw the construction of the St. Croix container port and several other major capital improvement projects that enhanced the infrastructure of the islands.

"Gov. Luis served our community for a decade, a period of growth and change for our island communities, and always strived to work on behalf of all Virgin Islanders," Christensen said.

Luis Hospital sent a statement to the media as well.

"On behalf of the St. Croix Governing Board, I express our heartfelt sympathy. The U.S. Virgin Islands has lost one of its greatest public servants so dear to many in the territory and the health-care community," hospital board chairman Valdemar Hill Jr. said.

Luis is survived by his wife and former first lady Luz Guadalupe-Luis; his children, Juan Francisco Luis Jr. and Carlotta Amalia Luis; his siblings, Carlos Monell, Lydia Monell, Esteban Monell and their families.

On behalf of the Luis family, in a prepared statement, Luz Guadalupe-Luis expressed her gratitude to hospital staff, family and friends who have stood with them during this very difficult time.

Luis had been hospitalized since Friday and died Saturday afternoon.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 774-7882 ext. 311 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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