Q&A With Ocean City Citizen Of The Year Al ‘Hondo’ Handy

Q&A With Ocean City Citizen Of The Year Al ‘Hondo’ Handy
Al Handy

OCEAN CITY – Albin “Hondo” Handy has held a lot of different positions and titles over his 35 years with the town of Ocean City. Tonight he will add another: Citizen of the Year.

“Hondo” is to youth sports and recreation programs in the resort as the Boardwalk is to the beach. Simply put, it’s hard to think of one without the other.

Handy will receive the coveted “Citizen of the Year” award at the annual Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Awards Celebration this evening at the Clarion Resort Fountainbleau Hotel.

He is widely considered one of the most well-liked and respected people in the community, and he has been one of the town’s most loyal employees and cheerleaders since he started in 1980, beautifying everything from city owned ball-fields to bulkheads as a groundskeeper. From there, he moved over to the Recreation Department where he shot up the ranks from “recreation specialist” to “supervisor” to, just recently, “manager.”

We sat down with him this week to talk about some of the things people may not know, including how he got his almost infamous nickname, and how he was among the first group of African American students who broke the color barrier in Worcester County public schools in the mid-1960’s.

Q: How did you get the nickname “Hondo?”

A: When I was in high school, I tell the kids all the time, I had a favorite (basketball) player that I used to talk about all the time in gym class. His name was John “Hondo” Havlicek (eight-time NBA champion small forward for the Boston Celtics 1962-1978).

I talked about him so much that people said, ‘man, if you don’t stop talking about him, we are going to have to start calling you Hondo,’ and I said, ‘I can’t stop talking about him, he’s so great.’ So, one day someone said, ‘that’s it, we are going to call you Hondo’, and the name stuck with me all the way through high school, college, and the rest of my life (laughs).

Q: I know you have a great team of people here at the Recreation Department, but for anyone who’s ever been here, you are kind of the face of what goes on here. Your unbridled enthusiasm about the games you are teaching and coaching to these kids is completely infectious. Where does that come from?

A: I would say it probably comes from my mother because she always says, ‘whatever you do, do it 100 percent or don’t even do it.’ The other thing she always taught me was that it’s better to give than receive. If you are in this profession, you are always giving, so you better be giving a 100 percent. But if you get in a position like I have, it’s a job you like, so it doesn’t feel like you are going to work. You feel like you are making people happy and making them feel good, so that’s what I do with the kids.

Q: Whenever I see you speaking to a large group of kids, you always speak about sportsmanship and the importance of it, not just in sports, but in life. Is that sense of sportsmanship and treating people well how you and your work here will be remembered?

A: I know for sure that it will be. I’ve always wanted to promote positive things not only in sports but in life. Sportsmanship has been one of the biggest things I’ve tried to teach these kids.

Q: You were among the first small group of African American students who integrated into Worcester County Public Schools in the mid-1960’s even before desegregation was passed full on. Tell me about that first year?

A: When I was entering my sixth grade year at Flower Street Elementary School, which was an all-black school in the heart of Berlin, we were given the opportunity to make a choice about whether or not we would go to Worcester High School, which was an all-black school or Stephen Decatur, which was an all-white school. The year before, a cousin of mine, Larry Waples, was the first person of African descent that went to Stephen Decatur, so when our opportunity came the very next year, and we knew that eventually we were going to have go to that school anyway, we decided to follow Larry. He kind of opened the doors and we went through it.

One of the things I always remember is that after a few days of attending the school, coming home and pondering what I wanted to say to my mother. I thought about it all night, and I said in the morning ‘mom, I don’t know if I made the right decision to go to Decatur’ and she said, ‘son, you remember when you brought the paper home and we discussed it, and you decided to go? Well, you committed to the school, so since you made that commitment, you have to honor that commitment. And, your lunch is on the table.’

I always remember that, because that meant, forget it son, you are going.

One of the reasons why I probably pondered it was because once you got off the school bus and sat down in class, you felt like you were in the school by yourself. All day long, seven periods a day, you walked down the hall and you felt like you were there by yourself. It was something to go through, but we did end up meeting a lot of friends, and some of those friends I still have today.

Q: You hear a lot about that time in American history about the first African American students who integrated into the school system, either by choice or after the law was passed. You hear some stories about those students being welcomed in and others who were not. What was it like for you personally? Did you receive any sort of ridicule for being in “their school?”

A: Well, just like anything else, you can get some blocks up when you go through some changes. It was a change for them and a change for us too. But, we saw it as a positive thing where we could compete academically as high as the other students in that school were. So we focused on academics and we loved basketball.

We became managers and had to get good grades to be managers on the team. Those guys who went to school with me, Oliver Purnell, Sherwood Purnell, Larry Waples, Faison Purnell, Milton Purnell: all eight of us ended up on the basketball team that won the first and only state basketball championship Stephen Decatur ever had (1970).

Q: You have done so much for the Town of Ocean City over the past 35 years. What has Ocean City given to you?

A: It’s given me the career that I never thought I would have.

Q: So, if Al “Hondo” Handy, who is accepting the “Citizen of the Year” award could have a conversation with young Al Handy, the scared young kid who got off the bus in the mid-60’s after going to Decatur his first day of school and telling his mom, I don’t think I can do this … If you could give him a pep talk like you have a thousand times before to kids who come through here, what would you say?

A: I would say keep smiling. Because smiling eases stress, it makes you feel better and it makes others around you feel better. So if you are nervous or unsure about something, start to smile. I think I’ve smiled my way through the last 37 years, and I still am.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.