The children of Celeste Speer, the 89-year-old South Bethany woman killed in a pedestrian accident last weekend, are remembering her as a woman of deep faith, with a youthfulness that prompted her to start painting in her 60s, remain physically active and graciously open her home to guests.
“The best advice she ever gave me was, ‘Let God decide,” her daughter, Christie Speer of Ocean View, said.
“Growing up, I would say, ‘Mom, I need to wear makeup and I need my new go-go boots.’ She was like, ‘No. You need to be a nice person.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t work in high school,’” Speer said, laughing at the memory while blinking back tears.
“She was just down-to-earth. People would say to us all the time, ‘Your mother is a saint,’” she said.
Celeste Speer died on Friday, May 19, after a vehicle, driven by an 82-year-old woman from Bowie, Md., struck her as she walked through a parking space in the Walgreen’s parking lot near Bethany Beach while the other woman was pulling into the space, Delaware State Police said.
The driver “made a sharp left turn … and as the car entered the parking space, the front of it hit Speer, who was walking in the parking space around 10:15 a.m.,” police said.
A man the family has known for years was at a restaurant nearby, watering plants, and ran to the scene, yelled for the driver to stop and stayed with Celeste Speer, holding her hand until emergency personnel arrived, her daughter said.
South Bethany Police handled traffic control and the Walgreens parking lot was closed for about four hours while police investigated.
Speer was rushed to Beebe Healthcare, where she died. Her close friend stayed for hours, waiting for family to arrive.
She was the mother of three daughters, Christie Speer of Ocean View, and Dawn Young and Cathy McKinnell of Fairfax, Va., and a son John F. Speer III, also of Fairfax. There are six grandchildren.
Her husband, John Speer Jr., who died in 2014, was CEO for the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers and the Milk Industry Association for 30 years, retiring as president and CEO of both organizations in 1988. He launched the annual Ice Cream for America celebration on Capitol Hill and was responsible for creating legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 that established July as National Ice Cream Month and July 15 as National Ice Cream Day.
“At Christmas, people would send us ice cream on dry ice. I didn’t like it. It was too much. It was everywhere all the time,” Speer said with a laugh as she characterized her parents’ relationship as “just wonderful.”
“Our house was open to anyone. My friends would come down when I wasn’t even there. Everyone loved them. She was Catholic, and she was very religious. My father was Protestant. They were always thinking of other people. Both my parents always helped others. Everybody sat on our porch. People would come by and come up for a drink. My mother never drank, but she would get them a drink,” Speer recalled.
McKinnell remembered her mother being active in open houses during local home tours.
“To give back, she would drive a blind parishioner to his appointments and the grocery store, help out at the St. Vincent de Paul food bank associated with the church. She served on the Bethany Neighborhood Watch, and the list goes on,” she said.
McKinnell referred to an old article in the South Bethany town newsletter that states, “Wintering in Florida in 2006, Celeste joined a Watercolor Club and has enjoyed working with that medium as well, having sold several watercolors each year during the River Bend Art Show.
“Painting has become a major endeavor in Celeste’s retirement years. She suggests that anyone who has been interested in art should pursue it on any level for pure enjoyment — at any age! Celeste resides in South Bethany, wintering in Tequesta, Florida.”
“She loved to paint. She was youthful and athletic,” Christie Speer said. “She has one of those banana bikes like we used to have when we were kids, because she can get on and off it. She was still riding it last year. She was looking forward to another grandchild, all those things grandmas do. Family was her thing. It was all about family and community. It really is.
“Our street — 10 or 12 houses on North Second Street in South Bethany have been there for years. It is the third generation now. We have all gone through our parents passing. It’s really supportive, and it’s really nice.
“Those people took care of my mom, if she need help getting groceries or they would take her a piece of cake. She built that house in 1969,” Speer said.
Born Jan. 6, 1934, in Wayne, Pa., Celeste Speer and her husband moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1958 after she earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Pennsylvania State University.
In 1968, they purchased a vacant lot on North Second Street and Ocean Drive, “which turned into a more than 50-year love for this small strip of beach that would become South Bethany,” her family wrote in her obituary.
The couple was involved in the South Bethany Historical Society and Beautification Committee, and Celeste Speer enjoyed rollerblading into her 70s and taking dance classes.
“Anyone who knew her appreciated Celeste’s kind and gentle manner. She was genuinely a good, generous and thoughtful person,” her obituary states.
The funeral will be Friday, June 9, at 2 p.m. at St. Ann Catholic Church in Bethany Beach, a special place in her life.
“Even at 89 years old, Celeste Speer was very active at St. Ann Catholic parish,” said the Rev. John Klevence, the pastor at St. Ann. “She attended daily mass. She worked at the St. Vincent de Paul food bank. And she was involved in our prayer groups. Celeste was kind to everyone she met and has now been joined together in heaven with her husband, John. Her daughter still attends our church and I was pleased to say last weekend that I am quite certain that Celeste and John are dancing together in heaven.”
“My mother just loved the beach,” Speer said, sharing memories as they came to mind.
“She had a wetsuit. She bodysurfed. My brother just sent the cutest picture of her on a Boogie Board. She was in good health, great health. She lived alone in a three-story house. She still had a garden. She was just complaining her hands are sore from gardening,” her daughter said.
“She was a kid at heart. When it’s our turn to go, we all hope we can go on a high note like that.”