Army veteran Austin 'Babe' Monsanto leaves a legacy of community service
By SUZANNE CARLSON | The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas | Published: October 19, 2020
ST. THOMAS, V.I. (Tribune News Service) — Virgin Islanders are mourning Austin "Babe" Monsanto, who died Saturday at the age of 94.
"He was a big guy in stature, he was very tall, and he was a giant in this community," said Barbara Petersen, president of the Rotary Club of St. Thomas, one of a dozen community organizations Monsanto served over the years. "He will be so severely missed, he was a great guy."
A lifelong philanthropist, Monsanto's dedication and charisma left a lasting impression long before his death, and the Crown Bay Commercial Center was renamed the Austin "Babe" Monsanto Marine Terminal in 2008 in honor of his service as the territory's first marine manager.
Born on May 20, 1926, Monsanto graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School and served in the U.S. Army, where he was called into active duty to serve in Korea.
In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower named Monsanto the first Virgin Islander to be a National Park ranger, and he was the first Black park ranger to attend the National Park Training Center.
He was named the territory's first marine manager in 1967, and worked for 18 years for the V.I. Airport Resource Agency, which later became the Port Authority, and then as deputy director of the authority.
After his retirement, Monsanto served as a member of the USO board of directors, a founding member of the St. Thomas-St. John Friends of Denmark Society, V.I. Lottery Board, Rotary Club of St. Thomas, Coastal Zone Management Commission and president of the V.I. chapter of the American Hibiscus Society. He twice earned the Paul Harris Award from Rotary St. Thomas. In 1998, he was named Virgin Islands Man of the Year by both the Freshwater Yankees Association and the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.
"He was involved in everything," said Erik Ackerson, past president of the Rotary Club of St. Thomas. "People came to him; he didn't go out seeking to become involved."
Ackerson said Monsanto was "such an incredibly proud American veteran," and was always present at the Veteran's Day parade.
A Rotarian since 1983, Monsanto also worked with students at his alma mater's Interact Club, the high school version of the Rotary Club, Ackerson said.
"He took the role as mentor. Even in failing health, in his later years, he rarely failed to not be able to attend an Interact meeting," Ackerson said.
Monsanto loved to share his knowledge of Virgin Islands history with the younger generation, and "he had a keen mind and he remembered names and dates and people and incidents and he told stories in such an easygoing manner," Ackerson said. "Kids just gathered around him and were drawn to him."
In the last year, Monsanto relocated to Florida for medical treatment, and was unable to return home due to the ongoing pandemic, Ackerson said.
Petersen said he is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Alda Monsanto, and their three children.
"He was special, he was one of the most unique Virgin Islanders in my 29 years of living here that I've ever met," Ackerson said.
Rotary Past President Larry Benjamin, who graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1956, said he was one of the students who helped Monsanto haul all of the books, furniture and equipment from what is now the Legislature building to the new high school in 1955.
Monsanto was working for the Education Department at the time, and the entire move was done "under his direction," Benjamin said.
Benjamin and two other Rotarians, Paul Davis and Bruce Petty, took turns driving Monsanto to meetings in his later years, and Benjamin said it was an opportunity to chat with Monsanto and learn more about his life.
From spearheading small projects like replacement of the dilapidated high school gate house, to working with the school's Career Center, to organizing the decoration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt V.I. Veterans Memorial Park every Christmas, to making major land-use decisions on the CZM commission, Benjamin said Monsanto had a hand in virtually every aspect of the community.
"He was a very good, fair-minded person. Every job he had, he took it seriously," Benjamin said. "I just know we're going to miss him dearly, not just in Rotary, but in the community as well. And I just want our youngsters, I want our youth to know they've lost a good advocate, a really important advocate."
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