Middlebury man tells the story of the Virgin Islands

MIDDLEBURY — Three days a week, Middlebury resident Arnold Highfield makes the grueling trek to the dialysis center in Burlington where he watches his blood flow through a series of tubes into a machine where it is cleansed and returned to his body. He hopes to soon get a new kidney but in the meantime, he is not feeling sorry for himself.
While Highfield often finds his body confined to the bland, institutional setting of a clinic, his mind is free to wander to familiar surroundings — the sandy beaches and gentle sea breezes of the Virgin Islands, where he and his family have maintained a physical and intellectual foothold since the late 1960s. Highfield, 72, has been using his medical down-time to add to an already prodigious collection of scholarly books he has authored on the customs, history and languages of the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region.
“With mortality bearing down on my shadow from behind, I work a lot harder,” Highfield said during a recent interview.
Highfield’s four-decade-and-counting honeymoon with the Caribbean can be traced back to 1962, when he married his wife, Shirley de Chabert Highfield — who hails from the Virgin Islands. The two met while they were studying together at Ohio State University, where both exhibited a great proficiency in the fields of history, anthropology and linguistics. They successfully completed multiple degrees.
But the 1960s were, of course, a turbulent time in the United States, as the nation immersed itself in the Vietnam War and confronted a climate of turbulent race relations amid a growing civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. The American Midwest, Highfield explained, was at the time not an entirely hospitable place for an interracial couple.
“Living there was rough,” Highfield said. “We packed up one day and went to Europe.”
They landed in Switzerland, where Highfield began a three-year teaching assignment at the Lycee Jaccard in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“We loved it there and thought we would stay there forever,” Highfield said.
But fate — and an invitation from Shirley’s mom — ultimately lured the couple away from the Swiss Alps to the sunbaked beaches of the Virgin Islands, where Highfield immediately set to work intellectually devouring every scrap of information he could find about the culture, languages and history of his newly adopted home.
“I was totally an outsider,” Highfield said of his initial introduction to the Caribbean nation.
“I couldn’t understand anything,” he added of the indigenous languages, which include variations of creole and an English patois spoken with its own unique lilt.
Already proficient in French and Spanish, he developed a quick ear for the native languages during his daily interactions with locals and with his students at the University of the Virgin Islands, where he taught anthropology, history, linguistics and other subjects. He knew he had gained a great measure of respect from Virgin Islanders when, many years into his tenure at the university, he would get impromptu “challenges” from locals.
“They would hear ‘There’s this white guy who can speak like us,’” Highfield said with a smile.
They would start speaking creole to Highfield and he would rattle it back. Jaws would drop and, Highfield said, “I would have an immediate friend.”
Highfield has always enjoyed writing — and pens a column for a Virgin Island newspaper to this day — but found little time to pursue that interest while maintaining a Herculean teaching load of four to six courses per semester.
“So I stockpiled ideas,” he said.
And those ideas gradually made their way into manuscripts and texts as Highfield found more free time. He has authored, to date, more than 20 scholarly books on the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region in general, focusing on such issues as slavery, European colonization, languages and dialects, and his latest composition: “Sea Grapes and Kennips, the Story of Christiansted and its People.” The town of Christiansted on St. Croix happens to be the Highfields’ hometown in the Virgin Islands and the photo on the cover of the just-published book — featuring a placid, emerald-green Caribbean fronted by a beach shaded by a venerable kennip tree — was shot from the family’s home. Highfield’s book explores the history of Christiansted, noting its age (older than the vast majority of American cities) and the fact that it has been occupied by at least seven foreign nations. It also includes stories of local pirates, Maroons, Jumbies, Carib Indians and a sketch of the Virgin Islands culture.
Highfield became somewhat of an expert on the Virgin Islands and saw his talents and intellect in high demand — including at Middlebury College, from where daughter Leslie graduated in 1992. Highfield taught a very popular Caribbean studies course at the college for three years, an offering that included some visits to the Virgin Islands. The Highfields have maintained a home in Addison County for more than two decades, first in Ripton and now in Middlebury.
“We love it here,” Highfield said as he soaked in the warmth from the fireplace in his cozy living room.
Highfield retired from teaching in 2003 but remains Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences and Linguistics at the University of the Virgin Islands. But retirement has been quite active for Highfield, as he remains immersed in as much writing as his illness permits. While he can no longer globe-trot to do his research, the Internet has helped him locate the old manuscripts and other documents he mines for information. He has five more projects in the works, including a  comprehensive dictionary and documentary-history of the Virgin Islands.
“I would say that I’ve lost 60 percent of my working capacity,” Highfield said of the impact of dialysis on his productivity. “I’ve got to be smarter about the other 40 percent.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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