Merwin, 1st native V.I. governor, dies
Published: March 21, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. THOMAS - Former Gov. John Merwin, the first native Virgin Islander to be appointed governor in the territory, died Sunday at 91.
A Republican, Merwin was elected to the V.I. Legislature as senator at-large in 1954, right after the adoption of the Revised Organic Act.
He served two terms and then was appointed to the position of government secretary - the position which is now known as the lieutenant governor - by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957.
The next year, Eisenhower appointed Merwin governor.
Sworn in the day before his 38th birthday, Sept. 26, 1958, Merwin served as the eighth appointed governor of the Virgin Islands, until he was succeeded by Ralph Paiewonsky in 1961.
Merwin was born on St. Croix in 1921, the oldest boy in a family of six siblings. He attended grammar school in Antigua, the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and the University of Puerto Rico. He graduated from Yale University in 1943 before going into the Army, where he served in World War II as a captain of artillery.
When he returned from war, Merwin went to law school, earning his degree from George Washington University.
He started a law practice on St. Croix before he was called away to serve in the Korean War.
Upon his return to the territory, Merwin began his political career.
According to his younger brother, Robert Merwin, John Merwin spoke French and Spanish fluently and in his retirement wrote several books, including "The Bartered Virgins, The little mermaid of Copenhagen, Denmark," a history of the transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States, and a memoir titled "A Life of Friendships."
In the territory, John Merwin was known as an attorney, a V.I. senator and governor, but he also worked in the international banking industry and the publishing industry for years after his political career ended.
"He was very highly thought of by everyone in the community," Robert Merwin said.
While governor, John Merwin was instrumental in the territory's economic development, particularly on St. Croix.
Robert Merwin said his brother worked with the Rockefeller family when they acquired Caneel Bay on St. John and donated land to the Park Service.
He also signed the contract to build the Frederiksted Deep Water Pier, which allowed the Hess oil refinery and the Harvey aluminum plant to set up shop on St. Croix.
"He had a lot to do with helping the territory attract those businesses," Robert Merwin said.
John Merwin also was an inspiration to many Virgin Islanders to go into politics, according to his brother.
He appointed Melvin Evans as his Health commissioner and later convinced Evans to become a member of the Republican party so that he could be appointed governor.
John Merwin worked closely with Frits Lawaetz and considered Ariel Melchoir Sr. an advisor, Robert Merwin said.
Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s father and grandfather both worked under John Merwin's administration. John deJongh Sr. was his chief of staff, and Percy deJongh led the Finance Department.
"John Merwin was an important leader for the Virgin Islands who helped shape the political landscape at a crucial time in the territory's history," Gov. John deJongh Jr. said in a prepared statement. "He was a trailblazer in local politics who worked to bring native Virgin Islanders into positions of prominence within the government. His legacy was an important factor in our territory's progress toward greater autonomy and self-rule."
Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone also issued a statement acknowledging John Merwin's service to the Virgin Islands.
"On behalf of the members and staff of the 30th Legislature of the Virgin Islands, I join a saddened community in paying tribute to the notable public service of former Governor John D. Merwin who has left us after a lifetime of contributions to his native land in numerous fields of endeavor," Malone said.
Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen said among his many accomplishments as governor, John Merwin worked to boost tourism in the Virgin Islands and was a strong supporter of representation of the Virgin Islands in the U.S. Congress.
"As the eighth appointed governor, he was our first native-born Crucian and he may be the first 'politician' to serve as Governor," Christensen said in a prepared statement. "He is remembered for his concern for the interests of local Virgin Islanders and the advancement of the territory."
John Merwin came back to government service under Evans' administration, working with the V.I. Port Authority. He later returned to private law practice, which he turned over to former Judge Edgar Ross when he retired and moved to New Hampshire.
In recent years, John Merwin was living in Ohio, where he died peacefully in his sleep Sunday morning, his brother said.
He is survived by his son, John Merwin II; his wife, Marjorie; and several siblings.
Robert Merwin said his brother will be interred in Milford, Conn., in the family plot in the spring. No services are planned at this time.
In John Merwin's honor, Gov. John deJongh Jr. directed that flags on all Virgin Islands public buildings be flown at half-staff from today until sunset on the day of interment.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.