Remembering Fish Powell, ‘Ocean City’s patriarch’

Fish Powell at the opening of the Ocean City Convention Center, which was named in his honor.

I met Fish Powell in the fall of 1985, within weeks of moving to Ocean City and accepting the position of associate editor at a weekly newspaper.

He had been mayor since April of that year and, when I walked into his office at City Hall, notebook in hand, he appeared comfortable in the position. In his usual good mood, he was sitting at his desk, laughing as he talked to a colleague. The little dog he often took to work, a Chihuahua, I believe, was taking bits of cooked steak from his hand.

When I introduced myself he broke into his signature grin and our friendship began.

There were serious interviews and news articles published that sometimes made him angry with me, but not for long. We’d go the Boardwalk for dinner – Ponzetti’s pizza for me, Dayton’s fried chicken for him and boxes of warm Fisher’s caramel corn – and talk about city plans to rebuild the boardwalk that was largely swept away in 1985 by the tail end of Hurricane Gloria.

He invited me to ride my bike on the Boardwalk with him and be his guest at crab feasts at his home, where he was the consummate host, tending to everyone’s needs from refilling glasses to demonstrating how to glean the most meat from those Maryland blues.

At City Council meetings, I appreciated his Southern charm and quickly realized the intelligence, logic and thoughtfulness that made him highly regarded during his tenure, from April 1985 to September 1996.

After Roland E. “Fish” Powell died Tuesday night, current Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, who was new to the City Council when Fish was first elected, issued a statement saying he ordered the flag lowered to half-staff and lauding Fish for his many accomplishments, especially the beach replenishment project, expansion of the convention center now named for him and establishment of the median in the center of Coastal Highway.

I talked to Sen. Jim Mathias this morning and he recalled a tender conversation he had with Fish when Mathias’ wife, Kathy, who is now deceased, was executive assistant in the mayor’s office.

“I went to City Hall to see Kathy and Fish asked me to go into his office. His first wife Blanche had died by then. He shut the door and he told me how much he respected Kathy and loved her for her loyalty and confidence. He told me it was vital I have somebody with me that I could trust and count on and how lucky I was to have her. And how lucky and fortunate he was. I have never forgotten that,” said Mathias, who went on to serve on the Ocean City Council before being succeeding Fish as mayor.

“He taught me how to read the water, how, when the leaves would blow a certain way, you knew the weather was coming in. He knew the weather. He was a charter boat captain,” Mathias said.

Both Mathias and longtime radio broadcaster Wayne Cannon said Fish was most proud of being chief of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Department, the man who wore the white helmet and coat.

“He has been the Ocean City patriarch. He is the patriarch — solid, trusted, confident as a leader,” Mathias said.

Cannon, who most recently saw Fish early this year at a Grace Parker Breakfast in the resort, often shared jokes with him and still wonders if he might have been fooled once.

“All the mayors, they trusted that they could talk to me and I would never say anything. One of the neat things Fish Powell told me is he didn’t know how he got the nickname Fish. We’re sitting at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast and we’re talking about food and he said, ‘I don’t like fish.’

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ He said, no, he didn’t like the taste of it. He liked shrimp and oysters and scallops but he just didn’t like fish. Here I am, I’ve got this breaking story: Fish Powell Doesn’t Like Fish. But now I’m thinking back. He had a pretty good sense of humor. I’m thinking, was he joshing me?” Cannon said, chuckling.

Before the beach replenishment project, Cannon said, Fish informed members of the media the resort hadn’t lost its sand, it was just “in suspension.” Later, he joked with Cannon the sand was in suspension all right – off the coast of Mexico.

All the journalists who covered Fish in those days remember him well, in a suit and tie, seriously discussing government business, negotiating with state leaders for funding, but also with his eyes twinkling as he talked about his absolute love of Ocean City.

When I became a resident 33 years ago, as enchanted as I was with the town, I wasn’t accepted as a native because that meant your roots had to extend way back to your great-grandparents, grandparents and parents. Maybe farther. You could stick a dozen of those popular, blue OC Local bumper stickers to your car and it wouldn’t mean a hill of beans.

But Fish Powell paid me perhaps the finest compliment I ever received when he told me in his eyes I was a local.

I’m going to miss seeing him on the Boardwalk, sitting on a bench with his wife, Jeanie, an ice cream cone in his hand. As Meehan wrote, Fish truly exemplified the office of mayor we’ll always hold him in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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