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Short overview of the lives of the first pioneers to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
Originally posted at [archived].

We Kept the Light Bulb On:
An Interview with Ellerton and Marjorie Harmer

by Charles Uzzell

Marjorie Harmer was born in Smithfield, Ohio on Aug 7 1921.

Majorie became a Baha’i in Marysville, Michigan. She was a Baha’i youth. "My aunt taught me the Faith and I became a Baha’i by osmosis. I felt that ‘This is truth,’ and it was such a natural continuation of my religious needs."

I asked if she had ever met Shoghi Effendi, and she replied, "No, isn’t that sad? I was afraid to. We were afraid we were not spiritually worthy of this. A lot of us felt that way." Majorie said of William Sears, "He was magnificent, as all of the Hands are in their own way. You find how differently they each served according to their own personalities. But they were all so precious."

Marjorie and her husband Ellerton moved with their dog to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands on Jan 12 1956, joining the Dayton's who were the first Bahá'ís to settle on St. Thomas. They came as "pioneers" during the Ten Year Crusade (1953-1963, when many Bahá'ís moved to new countries in order to create new Bahá'í communities.)

"A pioneer should be a flexible person, and can’t be demanding all of the niceties we leave behind in the States, if that is the case. He or she has to be compassionate and broad-minded if he wants to fit in, and should be well versed in the teachings. We all should be."

"We need to have more youth activities in the Virgin Islands. Teaching is in many forms, and if so, then we talk right away about service. That seems to be our function here. We meet all the pioneers and teachers here. Always ready to go to the airport."

"The need we have, is to have local people taking the Writings, then we’ll grow. The mechanism to do this? We don’t know the key. We haven’t found it yet…for one thing, we are not as visible in the community as we should be. That takes in a lot."

"Our dreams have been fulfilled. We have been here 45 years."

Ellerton V. Harmer "Like farmer, it’s Harmer" was born Sept 22, 1917, in Port Huron, MI. He became a disabled veteran in 1936 from an accident while serving in the National Guard. "I enlisted as a kid. Got a dollar a drill, one drill a week…in 90 days had 12 drills. So with $12, I bought my first sweater. The style at that time was to go to high school in sweaters."

"I became a Baha’i in 1940. My wife and her aunt taught me the Faith. Marj’s aunt was like her second mother since her own mother died when she was about 12. I went to firesides, and loved them. One of the things that helped me become a Baha’i was the fact that …my folks moved out in the country in the 1929 crash. One of the guys I rode into town with was a colored fellow. He was a wonderful fellow. Prejudice just didn’t go over with me. [So I like the Faith because we work to get rid of prejudice.] He was a postman, and lived about 4 blocks from us. I couldn’t see that prejudice. I always had good relations with his family. The other thing that attracted me to the Faith was Progressive Revelation. The logic of it, that with all the other religions in the world, God wrote more than one book. That’s the logic that I think people ought to be able to see very easily. And lack of prejudice, I think, just takes hold."

"I became a Bahá'í just as I was leaving to go into the service. After I got in camp various people would say the blessing. Marj and her aunt loaned me prayer books, so I was able to read the blessing in the mess hall. Blessings and prayers from the Baha’i Writings."

"There was another Baha’i in Louisiana, a lady, the only other Baha’i in the state. I was stationed just outside Alexandria, Louisiana. It was a brand new camp in the wilderness. Was there six months. Then back to MI, until July the following year. We had to live with Marj’s father for awhile. When we got our own house, and were moving the furniture, I disconnected the radio. When I plugged it in at the new house the first thing that I heard was that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I remember that clearly."

"We also lived in Tucson, Washington DC, Detroit, Chicago, and then Albuquerque. Marj attended the 100th anniversary in Wilmette. On her way home she stopped off at the school the Baha’is had in Colorado (which was later sold to help create the US Air Force Base). The drive was on for pioneers. It was like a prep course for pioneers. When she got home she said, ‘We’re going pioneering!’ I was a consultant to the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, [and had several good jobs]. We were very active in everything, and had bought a beautiful home up on the west mesa of Albuquerque. We sold everything lock stock and barrel. We had the choice of several places to go. This one [St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands] seemed very nice because of the health problems I was having." [He has a lung condition. At one point, while in Michigan, they had said he only had five years to live.]

"We adopted three children. We have had some really great times, and some really low times. My son Tony passed away in 1989. Died when he was 33, a music genius. They once put together a whole orchestra just for him. I don’t’ know a thing about music. Our daughters Susan and Michelle are active in the Virgin Islands.

"We are two of the most fortunate Baha’is because of our contacts and the people we have known. We’ve always had visiting Baha’is. Our home is a halfway station if you will, they could stop over night and then go out and teach down island or what have you. If we had been an assembly in some small town, we would have never had so many opportunities to meet so many wonderful Baha’is. Enoch Olinga, Dr. Muhajir, Ruhiyyih Khanum Rabbani, Glenford Mitchell… all the beautiful Baha’is that have been here."

"I was Chariman of NSA here, and voted for the Universal House of Justice in 1968. Members from down island also went to that election….Marj has been to Haifa three times, me twice. We had dinner with Ruhiyyaih Khanum Rabbani, at ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s house, with a couple of other pioneers."

"Glenford Mitchell is now on Universal House of Justice. In the early days in searching property (I am a little farmer boy you know) he and Mr. Woolswere here. They were the first ones to live in that little apartment so the National Convention could be held here. We couldn’t get the university because of a date conflict. So downstairs was the convention. Piled up the concrete and everything, just moved the construction stuff out of the way. Glenford Mitchell, he is from Jamaica. I remember some of the discussions. Our goal was to get some property for a National Center. He once said, ‘You know, we’re just going to have our first million dollar budget this year.’ And now we have a huge budget. That was the only schedule I was ever behind on, the national center. I just didn’t have enough knowledge of what was going on down island."

"The Knights of Baha’u’llah were Chuck and Mary Dayton. They were from Florida, I think, but were of English descent. Charlie was in the navy in WWII and had a cabinet shop. They had one daughter, but she was already in college and married to Dr. Balfour when the Dayton’s moved here. The Balfour’s pioneered to Africa, and formed… I don’t know how many… NSA’s there. He was killed in an automobile accident. He was consultant to UHJ. He also took Chuck back to states for the hospital, then went back to settle the estate."

"The Dayton’s lived on St. Thomas. We lived with them when we first came for two weeks. They prepared a house … for us to live in. We’d come from this beautiful house in Albequerque, and this one had nothing. It was our "House of Humility." It had an uneven concrete floor, and my head touched the ceiling. My wife was singing in the orchestra. I took correspondence course in electronics. We brought the plumbing and electrical tools, and stored everything else. Took that box and made a cupboard for the shack we were moving into. Put in a sink. Chuck made the closets and a little sink. They were cute things. The House of Humility was next door to Chucks, and was next to nightclub that still exists. We had drunks on our front steps many a time. Poor Marj. She always took a menial job as a secretary. Once she got a bad cold and was sick for quite a while, I was really worried. And she detested drunks!" After saying this, Ellerton laughed.

"The thing that really bother me these days is that we are always wrapped up with growing pains, and that I am spending more time with the TV…. We used to be very concerned with the scientific world and the religious world not following each other. Now they’re putting it all together. And something in the Baha’i Writings that would answer every one of their mysterious questions! We have made fantastic progress, and now I feel that the scientists are swinging back to there is a God, and He really wants to help us with all this knowledge."

"We had tremendous success here, not because of me, but because of the people that came through. Hands, travel teachers, etc. We are weighted down with administration. They hate me" Ellerton said with a laugh, "I make everybody keep perfect records. We are in a recession of sorts. I know the teaching projects are important, but just like the money. We got to have the people to do it."

"I used to work on de Gauss-ing ships. I fellow came in with a problem, and my boss said, ‘Take Harmer. He can spare the time.’ A gasket had burnt out on the man’s compressor. In those days you couldn’t get things. He thought I was a genius from then on because I found something to stuff down into the compressor that fixed it. A year or so later, he offered me a job, and that is how I got back in private enterprise. It was always tiny incidents that lead to bigger things for us. We’re not great teachers, but we kept the light bulb on. There were times when we were the only two here."

"I have enjoyed these islands. The highs and the lows, you know."

    — Interview conducted by Charles Uzell in Saint John (Virgin Islands), February 16, 2000
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