OCEAN CITY — The stolen portrait of a beloved Ocean City hospitality matriarch was returned to its rightful place this week after it turned up in a room at a neighboring motel on Tuesday.
Sometime early Sunday morning, a prankster, or likely pranksters, swiped a large portrait of Thelma Conner from its lofty perch alongside a portrait of her late husband Milton Conner above a staircase in the beachfront Dunes Manor Hotel on 28th Street and Baltimore Ave. The couple was instrumental in the early growth of Ocean City as a resort destination and the Dunes Manor, which opened in 1987, is the pinnacle of their historic role in the resort.
Swiping the portrait was likely no easy task as it hung high above a staircase in the Dunes Manor, but with no witnesses and no security footage, finding the culprit or culprits and recovering the picture unharmed appeared to be a long shot as the investigation continued early this week. However, some time on Tuesday, a housekeeper at the neighboring Econo Lodge found the missing portrait in a motel room from which guests had recently checked out.
“We were really amazed by the support from the community in the efforts to recover Mrs. Conner’s portrait but we realized it was probably a long shot,” said Dune Manor General Manager Kyle Johnson on Wednesday. “We were in the lounge on Tuesday watching the evening news because we knew there was going to be a segment on the missing portrait when we got a call from the Econo Lodge telling us one of their housekeepers had found it.”
Johnson said even when he became aware it had been recovered, he held out reservations about its condition.
“We were really lucky she wasn’t damaged,” he said. “It could have been tossed in a dumpster or defaced. We didn’t think we would get it back, and then we thought it would have been destroyed or have a mustache drawn on it or something. People do pranks, especially if they’ve been drinking, so we really didn’t have much hope it would be recovered.”
Aside for some minor damage to the frame, the portrait is in good condition, according to Johnson.
“It’s in one piece and it’s back where it belongs, albeit with some heavy duty screws,” said Johnson. “We’re happy to have it back. The police are still investigating, but it doesn’t seem likely there will be any suspects caught or any charges filed. Even if they have the information on who rented the room where it was found, it would be a long shot to connect them to the theft without any witnesses or other evidence.”
Johnson said Dunes Manor staffers were beginning to lose hope of recovering the portrait up until it was found.
“My biggest fear came after we searched our entire hotel and didn’t find it,” he said. “We thought initially it would probably be found in one of our rooms or on the property somewhere, but when it wasn’t, it seemed pretty remote that we would get it back.”
The Conners played an important part in the development of Ocean City as a major seaside resort. They were married in 1940 and worked together at the Hastings Hotel back in the early days of the resort. They later worked side by side at their own Dunes Motel for years and always entertained the idea of opening the lavish hotel known for its famous afternoon tea service and a throwback to a kinder, gentler era.
When Milton Conner passed away, Thelma Conner reportedly received numerous calls about the availability of the vast, oceanfront tract at 28th Street, but she kindly declined all inquiries and held onto the couple’s original dream. At the age of 74, Conner’s dream became a reality with the opening of the Dunes Manor, on April 1, 1987.
“This was always her dream and she made it happen,” said Johnson. “Even after Milton passed, she held onto the dream even when people called her a fool, and then she opened it on April Fool’s Day just to show she had a sense of humor.”
Thelma Conner passed away in 1999, but her legacy as one of the matriarchs of the resort’s hospitality industry lives on through her employees.
“She loved this place and she loved her employees, who were basically her extended family,” said Johnson. “Some employees have been with her for 35 years since the Dunes Manor opened and some go back even farther than that. We realize it’s just a portrait hanging on the wall, but it’s very important to us and we’re so happy to have it back.”