Once, a Missouri man walked into South Bethany Town Hall, utterly lost. He had driven around for two hours, looking for the ocean. The staff were politely baffled. Finally, they asked if he had driven over the Indian River Inlet Bridge.
“Yes,” he said.
“Well, that was the ocean,” Town Clerk Dee Burbage replied.
For 33 years, Burbage has been the welcoming face at South Bethany Town Hall. On April 4, Deloris “Dee” Burbage retired from her position as town clerk.
Regardless of silly questions and sometimes cranky residents, Burbage has served the public for the past 33 years.
“You just learn to laugh with them or say, ‘OK — let me figure that out,’” Burbage said. “For the most part, people are nice.”
She was honored by the South Bethany Town Council with a farewell party and official commendation, praising her attendance record, hard work and “consistent dedication to the Town.”
Through it all, she’s had friends and coworkers by her side.
“It’s great. We have a good time,” Burbage said. “We just have fun. Everybody helps everybody.”
“She’s a great lady,” said Financial Director Renee McDorman said. “It’s going to be sad not to see her out front.”
“She’s fabulous,” said Administrative Assistant Pam Smith. “She comes in, she’s always in a great mood. She’s very dedicated.”
Having spent at least 12 years apiece at town hall, McDorman and Smith have shared many memorable moments with Burbage. They joked that she’s stubborn but has a big heart.
“She has so many people, if she’s not here … they say, ‘Where’s Dee?’ The townspeople really know her. Obviously, she’s been here 33 years. When she’s not here, they notice it,” Smith said. “She’ll be missed very much.”
A newspaper ad first brought Burbage to town. She was working in Sea Colony when the South Bethany position was advertised. She interviewed and was hired by then-Mayor Marge Gassinger the next day.
“I think I’ve done everything but maintenance,” Burbage joked.
“She’s been an important part of history of the town. She’s been a part of it and a witness to it at the same time,” said Mayor Pat Voveris. “We lose a lot of historical information when we lose her, but we certainly wish her the best and are very happy she’s got this exciting new chapter of her life.”
Besides her daily tasks and serving as “election guru,” Burbage has worked alongside town council members during major storms to keep residents and property owners informed.
“When I first came here, there wasn’t a whole lot of houses,” Burbage said. “We used to have little houses. Now we have monster houses.”
When she began, the police department was just two officers, and town hall was just a little house. Both have grown.
The town had just been incorporated in 1969 and had been operating primarily out of secretary May Felerski’s living room and front porch. Burbage was hired 15 years later, when administrator Kathy Charles insisted on having extra help to run the small town hall, built in 1978, then renovated in 2008.
Burbage became full-time within a few months, and the ladies demanded some modernization in the tiny building. They got a second typewriter and a new box of pencils, Burbage recalled with a laugh. She remembers when all tax bills were typed by hand and the mimeograph machine got ink everywhere.
Besides the ongoing issue of beach replenishment, Burbage also remembers when Grotto Pizza opened in York Beach Mall.
“The biggest issue was when Grotto’s came to town and wanted to serve alcohol,” she said. Citizens were so worried that it would damage the town on a moral level that they attended the town council meeting in droves. “They were probably out the door in a line, looking in the window. … It was just beer! It wasn’t anything else,” Burbage added with a laugh. “They can drink on the beach, so why can’t they drink at Grotto’s?”
The tiny seaside town has grown, although South Bethany has retained its determination to allow no new commercial zoning. She estimated that the town had around 500 homes when she started, versus perhaps 1,300 now.
Born in Ocean View, she attended Lord Baltimore School and has lived her whole life in coastal Delaware, except when her husband was stationed for three years in Oklahoma City, Okla. She grew up in the house that is now the Tunnel-West House museum in Ocean View. “We went and helped them put it back to the way it was” to resemble an earlier era, she noted.
That reminded her of an earlier time when kids rollerskated on the smoothest surface in town: the concrete-laid Route 26, which had much fewer cars than today.
“We’d play outside from sunup to sundown,” she said.
Although anyone who works in customer service is used to some abuse from the public, Burbage had experience with putting people in their place: she was a police officer and detective for six years in Ocean City, Md.
Her days as cop began on a lark.
“I saw an ad in the paper and somebody said, ‘I dare you to do that,’” Burbage recalled. “I said, ‘I can do that.’”
Although drugs were getting big at that time among the youth in downtown O.C., Burbage said, “It was fun. I loved it. … Then I got married, and that was the end of that.”
Her husband came from Philadelphia and worked in the U.S. Coast Guard station in Ocean City.
In her years growing up and living in coastal Delaware, Burbage hasn’t been completely impressed with the changes. She misses the open space of the rural fields and beach that have since been covered by housing developments. Rules and regulations followed.
“We didn’t have to pay to park to go to the beach,” Burbage recalled, and children played King-of-the-Hill on sand dunes.
“The people were friendly. Then, all of a sudden, they weren’t so friendly anymore,” she said.
But Burbage has never felt the need to live elsewhere.
“This is where I grew up,” said the Millville resident. That’s all there is to it.
The community honored Burbage’s last workdays with tributes from the South Bethany Town Council, Delaware Municipal Clerks Association and both chambers of the Delaware State Legislature.
Town officials recently announced the hiring of a new town manager, and the clerk position is currently being advertised.
“It’s the face of the town, and so we’re looking to fill those shoes with someone who’d be as service-oriented and friendly and helpful,” Voveris said.