Home, sweet home
Peter Frederick has lived in many exotic locations around the world, but it’s Fenwick Island that he truly calls home. Today, Frederick puts most of his energy into the management of his home town, as president of the Fenwick Island Town Council and the town’s mayor.
Frederick lived much of his childhood in Wilmington, but the family bought property in Fenwick Island when the state opened up unoccupied land for purchase around 1950. By 1953, they had their own beach cottage on Essex Street, and by 1966, Frederick’s mother spent at least five months of the year in her coastal home.
The Fenwick Island beach house was home to Frederick, though. “I grew up here full time,” he said.
Life in Fenwick Island was key in Frederick’s career path, too, for his family’s next-door neighbor at the beach was a retired Foreign Service officer, and he regaled the young Frederick with stories of his life and work overseas.
“You have the opportunity to see things you only read about,” Frederick recalled learning from his neighbor. The enthusiasm was contagious.
Frederick excelled in school. He also served as president on the student council as a member of the first graduating class at John Dickenson High School. But it was his passion for travel that finally sent him abroad during his junior year of high school, as an exchange student in Austria.
He’d had only a single year of German, and he resided with a family that spoke no English. Frederick had to make his way through the language barrier as well as the differences in cultures. “It was the greatest thing in the world,” he said of the experience and the challenge it provided.
Upon returning to the United States, Frederick attended Dartmouth. And while there, he went on a blind date with a young student at Mt. Holyoak College, a woman who he said “had been bitten by the travel bug long before we met.” Their mutual history as foreign exchange students was a common bond but just one piece of the puzzle that led her to become Mrs. Marcia Frederick.
Frederick was still focused on his dream of becoming a Foreign Service officer, and he focused on economics as his soon-to-be forte when he was finally sent overseas.
“You get to see a lot more than the average tourist,” Frederick said of the opportunities his assignments provided for him and his family.
They went from Argentina to Canada, then to Australia and Korea, finally serving in France and Sweden before Frederick concluded his overseas service. “You get to meet some wonderful people,” he said warmly.
Paris became a favorite of the family, “a wonderful place to live” and one where they could take advantage of world-class culture on an everyday basis, such as visiting the Louvre on weekends to explore the artwork at their leisure. Sydney was another favorite, and Frederick recalled his Korean assignment as a professional challenge simply due to differences in culture.
There, also, he said his wife found an additional challenge. “It’s more difficult for the spouse,” he said, explaining that he generally had a translator to assist in his work in countries where English wasn’t the primary language. His wife, on the other hand, had to fend for herself.
“When Marcia goes out to buy food, she has no translator,” he said. “Caring for the kids, finding doctors, et cetera, it was a real challenge.”
Still, she managed not only to get those basic tasks accomplished wherever they lived but also to maintain a career in an ever-changing environment. Trained as a librarian and earning a master’s degree in library arts, Marcia Frederick found herself called upon to assist with a film production company during their stay in Australia and as a teacher in several posts. She also helped establish a library for the international school in Stockholm, Frederick recalled proudly.
Along the way, the family not only enjoyed the special privileges of resident diplomats in foreign countries, they got to meet and greet dignitaries, celebrities and power-brokers from all spectrums of life.
“We got to meet some truly impressive people,” Frederick said.
The family was titular host to Ray Charles during the singer’s tour stop in Seoul, and Frederick recalled with a grin their meeting backstage at the concert.
“He said, ‘It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Ambassador,’ and I had to say, ‘No, no, I’m not the ambassador.’ He laughed and said, ‘Well, you look like an ambassador to me,’” Frederick recollected of the conversation.
“I can say now that a blind man thinks I look like an ambassador,” he added with a laugh.
Another favorite memory of his service was an evening spent with Walter Cronkite. The journalist, visiting with embassy staff briefly, requested a simple evening of dinner and coffee, which the Fredericks were happy to host. They spent several cherished hours talking with the newsman that evening.
While the benefits of the job were extraordinary, Frederick noted that his time was rarely his own during his overseas service. “The only time you have to yourself is when you’re on vacation,” he recalled of that time in his life. “Your job is to represent the U.S., and you have to understand the people of that country.”
Along the way, Frederick earned silver and gold medals from the U.S. Department of Commerce, where he also served as a deputy to the Secretary of Commerce. (He was recently honored by Sec. Colin Powell for his lifetime of service to the department.)
It was a life that inherently on-the-go, moving them a total of 16 times between Frederick’s work with the Foreign Service and the Department of Commerce, and his later job with Dupont that called for the family to move up and down the East Coast. “We got a lot of experience at packing and moving,” he said with a wry grin.
Despite all the shifts in their living arrangements, the family had one place to which they always came home: Fenwick Island. The Fredericks’ four children did grow up in the coastal town. “It’s the only place they call home,” he said. “We had a lot of fun here. This is the only place we would go back to to live forever.”
Daughter Jenny became the town’s first female lifeguard. Each of the four children worked at the Fenwick Island Crab House or Shark’s Cove at one time or another, he recalled. One son worked at Warren’s Station restaurant for nine years.
And while his children grew up referring to his mother as “Grandma-at-the-beach,” Peter and Marcia Frederick’s six grandchildren now refer to Marcia Frederick by that name. Their beachfront home in the town is filled with mementos of their time in foreign lands, their retirement travels and family photographs taken during their time in Fenwick Island.
On one outer door is a wreath made of corks — one of the few hobbies Frederick will admit to in his leisure years, along with carpentry and furniture refinishing.
Much of the time the couple does not spend traveling to visit old friends overseas is now spent simply relaxing — a far cry from the days when his time was not his own and she had to worry about making do in daily tasks without a translator.
“There is no rush,” he said. “I’ll often stay in one room on a slow weekend.”
And while the couple does still spend a good portion of their leisure time traveling, Frederick said he doesn’t miss the Foreign Service life all that much. “I’d go back for six months, but not for four years,” he said adamantly.
Instead, he puts his energy into his work with the government of Fenwick Island. It was a natural move for him after his training in economics and his 25 years of experience with government, he said. It was a call to public service in the only place his family really called home.
And the difference between working for the federal government and helping to govern a small town? “In small-town government, you actually get things done,” Frederick said. “Not everything works, but you find out quickly whether or not it is working. It’s a challenge to get things accomplished.”
The council president said he’s particularly proud of the town’s recovery from “a rough patch several years ago.” In 2004, the council went from an accounting bungle (and other issues) in that troubled period to an auditor’s report that commended the town for fiscal restraint and found no recommendations to make, save seeking out a higher-yield investment for some of its funds.
Now, Frederick said, “There’s a marked difference. Things are being run very professionally.” The town has also maintained its same police officers for more than 18 months, he noted in a nod to the other troubles.
A myriad of other projects for the town are also beginning to see fruition.
“We know how to do it and get it done,” he said, noting the town’s “very special effort” to get a median-beautification project going (slated for possible completion before the summer) and to get itself set up for a beach reconstruction project that will expand the shoreline significantly and guarantee maintenance by the Army Corps of Engineers for the next 50 years.
As for his own battles in town politics, Frederick said, “Every day in public service there will always be people who are unhappy with what you do. You recognize there will be criticism.”
He does, however, admit to being impatient and to being a bit challenged by the transition from international politics to local ones. “I am no longer in Washington or Paris or Sydney,” he said. “I am no longer dealing with people at the highest levels of government. But the criticism of me has been all about style, not substance. I take that as a compliment.”
And while much has been accomplished since Frederick joined the town council, he also has a list of projects he’d like to focus on in the coming years. The top of that list is a new town hall. The small building, he said, does not provide enough room for staff, for lifeguard meetings or for public works.
Frederick would also like to spruce the town up a bit, with new street signs, new regulatory signs to remind visitors of beach regulations and benches to provide a solid bit of seating atop the dunes once the new, wider beach is completed.
“We don’t want a boardwalk,” he noted adamantly. But improvement of access to the bay from the town’s canals is on his to-do list. He said many residents have to speed up from the canals into the lagoon area, just to make it across the shallows.
At the base of his desires for the town is a love of its history and a dream for its stable future. “It’s really a great, neat little town,” Frederick said. “We have a cross-section of homes, from the fishermen’s cottages that our parents built to the big, new houses — big, small, old and new.”
The town’s cross-section of people is also a source of pride for the mayor. “Our year-round residents include senior executives and blue-collar workers. But once you get down here, it doesn’t make any difference. All that goes by the wayside. We have a lot of impressive people who live here, but you wouldn’t know it, because they don’t act that way once they get here.”
And if Frederick has one dream for the town’s government itself, it’s that more of those people — impressive or otherwise — will get involved. “We get complaints about people being on the council too long,” he said. “But there’s not a long list of people who want to participate.”
The difficulties of public service that he’s experienced throughout his life may be factor in keeping some of those people from getting involved, but Frederick hopes that they will find — as he has — that there is “a good reason to do it.”
Frederick hopes that if the town’s residents and property owners can focus on solutions and not get stuck on the problems, “everybody will pitch in and make things work.”
The council president is doing his part to pitch in, making it a focus of his life, along with his family and simple relaxing retirement after a lifetime of work-related travel and government service. Fenwick Island is, after all, the only place Peter Frederick has really called home.