By Teresa Younger •
Given the deep divides apparent in society today, it is refreshing to re-read Poet Laurent Maya Angelou’s “Human Family” poem as a reminder of our endless similarities. “Human Family” was featured in an Apple ad during the 2016 Summer Olympics, a world event that draws spectators by the million. Sports have brought people together for thousands of years, have taught us to become committed team leaders, build alliances and share a clearly defined purpose to win. I am inspired by people who facilitate the coming together of people rather than divide the world with vitriol.
For me sports top the list of things that brings people together. The sportscaster is the unsung facilitator of sporting events. I should know, my father Robert “Bob” Leon Wilmer devoted decades to broadcasting. My dad enjoyed a broad career as an editor-in-chief, activist, Rotarian. He became most famous as a sportscaster for St. Thomas USVI based radio stations, WVWI Radio One (1000 AM), and then WSTA Lucky 13 (1340 AM). My dad made a major splash in the Caribbean for most of the last three decades. He called the plays for local games, reported on national and international sports, and his voice and status grew into the fabric of the Caribbean. As a sportscaster, he elicited emotion in his listeners and love and loyalty in his friends at a cost. Most of the memories I had of him were as a child growing up in a formal household. Although a break-up between my parents dominated the relationship within our family, my dad and I had begun to rekindle our relationship months before his death. Until then, we hadn’t had the chance to develop a relationship beyond my elementary school years. Being a parent myself, I know that parenting is only part of my identity. I wanted to know my father as a man, how and where he lived, his work and the relationships he had. So we booked a flight, and my husband, daughter and I booked a flight to visit St. Thomas.
We were met by my dad’s close friend and radio personality, Anita Davis, who took us on a tour through Bob’s island life and a walk in his footsteps. We visited radio station Lucky 13 WSTA, an island stalwart and the only station on the air 24 hours through hurricanes Hugo, Marilyn, Bertha, Lenny, Irma and Maria, giving it the distinction of being everybody’s radio station. Everyone knows to look to WSTA for news related to the human effort post hurricane. My dad was a part of that effort according to a letter of gratitude I found in his personal papers. The letter is undated, but is on WSTA letterhead and signed by station owner Athniel “Addie” Ottley and was written to thank Bob for broadcasting through the worst of Hurricane Bertha. Anita arranged a visit to WSTA for us. My husband drove to the bottom of Crown Bay/Subbase hill in Frenchtown and given the infrastructure, there was no choice except to complete the remainder of our assent to the radio station on foot. Walking up the steep steps to WSTA and finding the building’s exterior painted Dodger Blue helped set a nostalgic mood in me.
My dad was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York, the original home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. My earliest television memories are sports and more sports on the television. I also remember watching him play baseball in Central Park and believing he was a baseball player, a Brooklyn Dodger. As if anyone walking up to the building could’ve mistaken the meaning of the blue exterior, the shooting baseball over Dodger script confirmed that we had arrived in the Caribbean’s sports radio heaven. Inside WSTA is a veritable who’s who of local radio. The cabinets are lined with awards for WSTA’s radio community: founder Bill Greer, former owner Len Stein, Ron deLugo “Mango” Jones, Lee Carle, “Brownie” Brown, Leo Moron, Peter Ottley and Bob Wilmer’s sports. WSTA’s esteemed Addie Ottley—he owns Ottley Communications Corporation—welcomed us and treated me to an on-air interview. Stepping through my dad’s decades-long workplace helped me get a sense of who he was professionally. Sports broadcasting helps to draw people together by providing them with a collective experience, the happiness and awe and also the pain we feel in sports.
Standing outside of the radio station we could see the breathtaking view of St. Thomas’ green hills dotted with houses and the rooftops of Crown Bay’s businesses including Tickles Dockside Pub in the Crown Bay Marina which was just beginning to fill with the day’s visiting nearby Water Island residents and “boaties”. A few minute’s ferry ride away, Water Island had been administered separately until 1996, when it became a formal part of the island district of St. Thomas/St. John. The island of St. Croix makes up the St. Croix district. When my father died, Anita organized and hosted a gathering at Tickles Dockside Pub for Bob. This way the man who brought folks together through sports was able to gather them together again, to remember his passing. This memory was calling so we departed WSTA and caravanned down to the dock.
With Anita’s help, my dad, as a sportscaster, drew people together once more. There was no sadness in the remembering. We found Bob’s usual brunch table and gathered around. We sat where Bob sat and ordered the BLT, Bob’s usual order. It was a way I felt to beckon Bob’s spirit. Anita pointed over at a seat in the bar with a good vantage point of almost every part of Tickle’s first floor and a good portion of the dock. Anita said that was my father’s regular weekday seat. After broadcasting Bob would head down to Tickles and “hold court” in that seat. People began to gather when we visited. Tickle’s manager and some waitresses began to share their Bob stories.
They said that when they heard that Bob passed on Sunday, January 6, 2013, the next day Monday the manager tipped Bob’s chair, so that no one could sit there. Another waitress said that Bob taught her the restaurant term “S.O.S.” stood for “Sh*t on a Shingle,” or chipped beef on toast. It is a rare order these days, but in the years following World War II it was a common order having been popularized by American soldiers. Bob’s friends came to sit with us, David Edgecombe and entertainer and air personality Robert Luke who didn’t know Bob personally but was a part of the St. Thomas, acting, broadcast, and communications community, and was certainly familiar with his work. We began eating and listened to Bob stories being told. It felt good to learn that some of Bob’s personality traits and gestures are alive in me and are visible to his friends. During our meal a waitress came over, to say that a customer had just come in sat in Bob’s weekday chair and ordered an S.O.S. and it gave her goosebumps because no one orders that. We all looked at each other while we processed this. I felt that was Bob’s way of letting me know that he knows we’re here for him and that he approves.
I’m so grateful to Anita, David, Bob and the staff at Tickle’s for sharing that moment with us. After we left Tickles, Anita took us for a drive up steep hills to Bob’s former apartment, located in the Estate Mafolie area not too far from the scenic Mountain Top attraction. We climbed out of the car to see Bob’s picturesque views, which encompassed all the western end of Frenchtown and a glimpse of Hassel Island, Crown Bay and the marina, Hassel and Water Islands all surrounded by Caribbean blue water. Anita drove us by other spaces Bob filled as we drove to the Point Pleasant Resort Villa where our family stayed during our visit. Along this drive I reflected that even at mountain top, I never felt that the view had swallow us up. Rather, we became a part of the view the way Bob had become part of the Caribbean, our cars and heads more dots in the hills.
After visiting Saint Thomas, I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see my father for the man he was. Bob was human, for sure, but he was also someone whose surroundings didn’t consume him. I am heartened to find that he lived comfortably and that he was someone who people loved and cared for long after his death. Bob became part of the Caribbean community and contributed his unique gifts for decades in a way that even outlasted his life. I’m so grateful to all the friends this sportscaster drew together, Bob’s friends, especially Addie Ottley and Anita Davis who made a lasting gift by sharing Bob’s life with me.
Teresa Younger is an educator who enjoys history, writing, gardening, and loves being a part of a vibrant community. She earned her bachelor’s degree from UVA and her Master’s degree in education from USC, and has been living in Virginia since 2003 with her family.