Bill Lee Interview – Coastal Sussex Weekly

by Dave on April 16, 2009

This interview originally appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, April 16, 2009:


If living at the beach were a professional sport, Retired Superior Court Judge William Swain Lee of Rehoboth Beach would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. A Marine who graduated from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania, Lee completed an unsuccessful run for Governor in November 2008. I decided to get together with the Judge this week to collect some of his memories about the beach as it’s evolved over his many years as a judge, politician and lover of coastal Delaware. That is, after we spent 20 minutes on the Judge’s favorite spring topic: Duke basketball.

COASTAL SUSSEX WEEKLY: You ran for Governor this year, and you traveled to every nook and cranny of the state. What’s unique about this area in comparison to the rest of Delaware?

BILL LEE: Well, that’s actually changed over the last 20 years. This is probably the most cosmopolitan area of the state now when it was once a very homogeneous area. My mother was from Sussex County. I spent every summer of my lifet at the beach. It has changed so much in my lifetime and I’m not sure whether I loved it more then or love it more now. But right now it’s a very cosmopolitan area with great restaurants and nightlife superimposed upon this historic culture of watermen, river pilots and farmers; old Delaware, old Sussex County. It’s just a wonderful mixture of tradition and the best that life has to offer.

CSW: What was it like 30 years ago during the 70’s, when the area began to change?

BL: If you go back 35 years, you’ll find the emergence of the beach area – not counting Lewes, because Lewes has always been a real town. Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany, Fenwick never were. They were 2 months, 3 months a year, and then the people who lived here, who were a very hearty breed and were willing to face the solitude of six months. Then we first started to see people who chose to live here year round. Lawyers who had always lived in Georgetown started living in Lewes, simply because there was a graciousness to the off-season and a delightful franticness to the summer.

CSW:  People who live here, some for ten years or more, a lot of them don’t realize things like the Rehoboth Beach Country Club used to be in town. Tell us what that was like.

BL: It was a beautiful, elegant club. It looked out over the first tee and it had a terrace. A lot of sycamore trees around. Parties in the summertime with white jackets and black ties on the beautiful terrace. I don’t think I was allowed in the bar at that time, but there was a place where my parents went in and sat in an enclosed area, but again it was a place that was enjoyed for three months of the year. This was a summertime town. There was the music of the 40s and the 50s. It was a very elegant time.

CSW: What is better now than it was 20 years ago?

BL: The roads and the water. And the restaurants. Oh, the restaurants, definitely. But other than that its not a better or worse, it’s just different. The restaurant I can remember my father taking me to was a little black restaurant on the west side of the canal called the Chicken Shack that was run by a black family and the food was just exquisite, but that would be quaint in this day of, really, five-star restaurants in town.

The other thing that’s different is I got married and moved here and my mother said, “I can understand the summer, but what are you going to do in the winter,” and I said “Mom, I just got married. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.” I’d have died if I hadn’t been married in the winter in 1965!

And yet, from the time I was in high school, we’d throw black tie New Year’s parties at my family’s beach house. My father bought us everything we needed, champagne, lots of food because he didn’t want us driving on the roads. He said, “Okay, I’m not going to kid myself. I know you’re going to be drinking. Everybody stay in the house. When you’re done, just crash.” So, it wasn’t that you couldn’t make something fun, but you had to.

There was a place called the Winter Inn up on the end of Park Avenue. They’d run their summer place and then they’d move into the Winter Inn, keep some staff on. Did some small meals, it was an elegant place, but you had to know about it.

CSW: You’ve mentioned your father a couple of times. But what was it like for you raising children at the beach?

BL: It was a lot tougher. There were more distractions for my kids than there were for me. When my mother wanted to sleep late, my brother and I got on our tricycles and rode down on the boardwalk to visit my mother’s piano teacher who lived in the Carpenter compound on the far south end of the boardwalk and she would fix us breakfast. My mother didn’t think anything about having a 4 year old and a 2 year old leaving the house at sunrise and going down the boardwalk. The entertainment for kids was Funland, and that was a big deal back then. There was elegance for adults at the Henlopen Hotel, the old Pine Room, places you could only look into if you were a kid, like the Pink Pony. It was a neat place to raise your children in the 40s.

By the tie my kids came up, we had people who visited us all the time, because if you live at the beach, people visit you. And of course they come in and party all night, and you have to go to work the next day. And they give their kids, I don’t know, in those days it was probably ten dollars, but it was an outrageous amount of money, and told them to go out on the boardwalk and have fun. So then your kids wanted their ten dollars, too.

Pretty soon , you’re into adolescence, and it was a time that drugs were around. Again, my father was worried about us going somewhere and drinking beer. There were bigger worries growing up here. It was a town where nice people came to party. They were attentive to their children for maybe a couple of hours on the beach and maybe an hour in the evening and the rest of the time, kids had a lot of opportunities to get into trouble. It was a tough town to raise children in.

CSW: You’re known as someone who enjoys going out to the bars and having a good time. What has changed about the young people you see out in the bars?

BL: I don’t think there have been any huge changes. Kids are still kids. I talk about Rehoboth in terms of a generation being four years. Kids blossom here when they go to college and then they’re gone. The people who wait on tables and tend bar come and go. If you come back four years later, you’re shocked that you don’t know anybody, because this is a part of your life, part of so many people’s lives. So I see kids come and go. Again, the challenges are greater because the temptations are greater. But that goes through phases.

As a judge, I got to see a side of Rehoboth that even though I lived here, I didn’t know existed. I think the most memorable one was a young man who was down here, who was a lifeguard, killed his grandmother in order to get enough crack cocaine to get him through the evening. He was a nice-looking guy, and he’d asked my daughter out on a date, and she’d seriously considered it. The trial came out and everybody in the courtroom knew that I went out at night and knew my way around Rehoboth and these people started talking about the after-parties when the bars closed. My bailiff, who was an extremely attractive, very worldly woman who kept track of me looked at me and frowned and I said, “I don’t know a thing about the after-parties.” I’m usually done by 1 o’clock. But that’s where the drug culture was really strong.

You also have the situations, and I have used this in some of my political talks, about a first-grade kid who was known as “Bad Earl,” and the name stuck with him all the way along. You have to wonder what kind of chance you have in a white town – you have to remember we’re only 20 years from when African Americans weren’t allowed on the east side of the canal after dark unless they were working someplace, so it was a tough town for a black kid, and this kdi never had a chance. I eventually sentenced him to prison for a long, long time for a series of very violent, nasty assaults. But you look back, and I’ve known the kid since he was in kindergarten.

CSW: This is a place, as you say, that good people come to party. How does that contribute to some of the activities that are going on?

BL: One of the things to understand is that I didn’t go to bars until I was almost 50 years old. Truthfully, the only time I was in a bar down here I went into the Bottle & Cork once in an undercover investigation for a murder case with three police officers, which I thought was incredibly cool at the time. I was just out of the Marine Corps, 26 years old. I don’t think I went in again until I was divorced. I was divorced at age 49, and my second childhood started then. When we first moved down here, we did our partying in our homes. I remember Mike Castle, Will Redfern, Mike, of course, owned the Bottle & Cork, and I remember somebody said, “Why would you go out when you could come to the Lee’s?” We owned a liquor store and when people came to town, they came to our house. The bar scene was something I saw in my fifties, once my kids were for the most part grown. I was suddenly single and had no idea how to live or act. It was either sit home and read, which I do a lot of, or go out to the bars, and I realized I preferred the bars. There was a time when restaurants and bars didn’t survive here. You had very few, the Country Squier in-town, Bob Ching’s Restaurant, which is now Stingray. The Dinner Bell, the Avenue restaurant – everybody who lived here went to the Avenue, the Robin Hood Restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue stayed open year-round, you could get breakfast in there. Restaurants were a way to live a very glamorous life for a year or two and then you went broke.

CSW: What about the Sea Horse? I remember early on being told that it was the Dinner Bell, the Sea Horse and the Avenue and that was it.

BL:  It started out as the Horseless Carriage, or something like that, because it was in a garage, and then it was the Horse & Buggy, and was a great place to go, because Walt Lehman raised oysters.

But there was no real restaurant scene. No one would stay open all year round. Irish Eyes became the first bar that I would have taken my aunt into that stayed open year-round. Everybody thought they were crazy. I remember talking to the owners at the time and they thought they were going to lose their tail three months, make a lot of money for three months, probably make a little money for the two shoulder months, and that’s how it would play out. They never had a month where they didn’t make money. Their first winter was profitable all the way through, and that changed the way people thought. Suddenly you realized there were people here who were looking for something to do in January and February. And that changed Rehoboth.

CSW: Some people that I’ve talked to say the biggest change was the change from an area where everyone knew everyone to today, where most people don’t know most other people. Do you agree, and when did that happen?

BL: There was a huge change. Dewey Beach used to have 20 people who lived there in the winter. Rehoboth had 200. Lewes had 1200 people. They were rival high schools because Lewes & Rehoboth each had their own high school. But everybody knew everybody. Indeed, everybody was pretty much related in that great Sussex County tradition. You went back three generations and people’s lines had crossed somewhere. It was a wonderful small town, and it has resisted change dramatically.

I remember when Jack LeCato, about the time I came here in the 60s, there was plenty of federal money and he proposed a sewer system for the whole region. The individual was left to pay for only about 2% of it and they voted it down overwhelmingly, because they said “if we build sewers, people are going to come; if we widen the roads, pave the roads, people are going to come.” People came anyway, and we were always 20 years behind.

CSW: What to you, specifically, is special today about this area?

BL: I think there is a core of people here who still make this a small town, and we have the trappings of the arts and culture, the University is here now. Beebe Medical Center is an outstanding hospital. I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world, and I’m always happy to get home. It never occurs to me to be someplace else. We have it all right here.

Bill Lee makes his home in Rehoboth Beach, and works as a mediator with the law firm Bifferato & Gentilotti in Lewes.

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