Rest in Peace Laurance Spelman Rockefeller
By Chuck Pishko
The Historical Society would be remiss if we did not note the passing of a champion of American conservation and national parks. Laurance S. Rockefeller (LSR) who passed on July 11, 2004 was instrumental in the establishment of the Virgin Islands National Park. His love of St. John, his business acumen, and his understanding of Washington ways allowed him to create the park, which saved this island from over development and preserved its unique beauty and solitude. In 1958 President Eisenhower asked him to chair the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. He served five presidents as an advisor on national conservation and environmental policy and was the first conservationist to receive the Congressional Gold Medal awarded by ‘H.W. in 1991 “in recognition of his leadership on behalf of natural resource conservation and historic preservation.” He developed his conservation ethic as a teenager when his father and brothers toured the western parks under the guidance of Horace Albright, Yellowstone’s visionary superintendent, NPS Director and LSR’s lifetime mentor. LSR soon learned that the “Rockefeller” name was a serious disadvantage in an arm’s length real estate deal requiring him to use agents and intermediaries to do his negotiations.
The Caneel Bay Resort, that LSR built in tandem with the VINP, helped make tourism a $100 million-a-year business in the USVI by the mid-1960’s. Both the park and the hotel officially opened on the same day, December 1, 1956. In 1955, prior to the hotel opening, LSR deeded the hotel and land to Jackson Hole Preserve so that its profits would support conservation activities. Subsequently, at a later date, Jackson Hole Preserve deeded the land to the VINP.
This spring in NYC the Friend’s President, Joe Kessler, was invited to meet LSR who questioned him closely on his favorite island and park. LSR and his beloved wife, Mary, would spend Christmas with their children here on St. John. Mary passed in 1997. Caneel named its newest launch in her honor. LSR honored her memory in the best way he knew how. In 1992 he and Mary created a Park with the gift of their long cherished Woodstock, Vermont home as the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park. The only national park telling the story of conservation history and the evolution of land stewardship in the US.