OCEAN CITY — The resort community lost a true icon this week with the passing of former Mayor Roland E. “Fish” Powell, whose contributions to the Town of Ocean City are almost too lengthy to enumerate.
Powell passed away on Wednesday at the age of 89, just a week shy of his 90th birthday. He leaves behind a remarkable legacy of leadership and helped shepherd the town through great periods of transition to become the world-class tourist destination it is today. A celebration of his life will be held next Wednesday, Sept. 5, on what would have been his 90th birthday, ironically in the Roland E. Powell Convention Center that bears his name.
His accomplishments are numerous, including an 11-year stint as mayor of Ocean City, of course, and as a former city councilman and council president, and as a Worcester County Commissioner including a term as commission president. He was also a charter boat captain, Realtor and past president of the Ocean City Marlin Club. Perhaps his first love, beyond, of course his family and his love for Ocean City, was the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company, on which he served for 65 years including 27 years as an active member and nine years as fire chief.
Any of those facets of Powell’s remarkable life are interesting and deserving of high praise, but taken collectively, they are a true testament to one of the pillars of the Ocean City community for decades.
Powell was born in Ocean City in 1928 and was raised on Dorchester Street. He attended the Ocean City School in what would later become City Hall and graduated from Buckingham High School. After graduation, he joined the Merchant Marines and the U.S. Coast Guard, where he served for six years.
After his service, he returned to his native Ocean City and with his first wife built a family home where the couple raised their children for years. He served as a charter boat captain from 1952 to 1962 and as Ocean City continued to grow, he began a career in real estate.
He was first elected to the city council in 1968 and served as council president at times during his tenure. Powell served as a Worcester County Commissioner from 1974 to 1985 including stints as president.
In 1985, the town was in somewhat of a political turmoil. The town’s electorate voted to change from a strong mayor form of government to a city manager-council form of government and the change did not come easily. Head-strong Harry Kelley was still the popular mayor at the time and with the mayor’s official duties diminished somewhat under the new system, there was considerable friction around City Hall at the time.
Kelley passed away during the winter of 1985 just months under the new system, and Powell, who was serving as county commissioner at the time, was the popular choice to replace him. According to current Councilman Dennis Dare, who served the town for decades first as city engineer and later city manager, Powell’s arrival back at the helm as mayor in Ocean City could not have come at a better time.
“Fish’s demeanor united the town, especially at City Hall,” he said. “He worked as mayor in the newly-defined capacity and served as a liaison to the county, state and federal level. He calmed the waters and brought stability back and shepherded the town through a major transition.’
Despite the somewhat diminished role of the mayor under the new city manager-council form of government, Powell embraced the concept and tapped the young Dare to be the next city manager.
“Fish was instrumental in encouraging me to apply to become city manager and I did that for 21 years,” he said this week. “Through that time, I really treasured his friendship and his mentoring and he will always be near and dear to my heart.”
Former Ocean City Mayor and current State Senator Jim Mathias agreed Powell was the only person strong enough and perhaps humble enough to shepherd the town through the transition.
“When Mayor Kelley died, the people’s choice for his replacement was clear and Fish answered the call,” he said. “From a city councilman to a county commissioner to a charter boat captain and fire chief, he was just a solid, confident leader and a mentor to all of us. For me, he was a true mentor and inspiration. I lost my dad at an early age and I was just 22 and trying to figure things out and he took me under his wing.”
Mathias’ late wife Kathy served as Powell’s executive assistant during the time he was mayor and while Mathias wasn’t involved yet in any of the town’s commissions or any political activity, he would often be around City Hall visiting Kathy and Powell recognized his potential. Mathias eventually served on various commissions and boards before being elected to city council and ultimately replacing Powell as mayor.
“Little did I ever know I would be his immediate successor,” he said. “We should be so blessed in the future and be so fortunate to have someone who could bring people together like Fish could. I am forever grateful God afforded me the opportunity to call Fish Powell my friend, mentor and inspiration.”
Under Powell’s leadership, Ocean City grew exponentially during the 1980s and transitioned from a sleepy Memorial Day to Labor Day resort town to the destination it has become. Current Mayor Rick Meehan was a young councilman and later long-time council president during many of those years before becoming mayor after Mathias moved to the state legislature. Meehan this week praised Powell’s contributions over those years.
“Fish was a dear friend and a great mayor,” he said. “Under Fish’s leadership, the town successfully transitioned as both the season and the year-round population began to grow. Fish was a friend, mentor and good example of what a true leader should be. He had that down-to-earth demeanor, but trust me, he could be as tough as nails if he needed to be.”
It was Powell’s kind but firm demeanor that was most often referenced this week when friends and colleagues reflected on his contributions to Ocean City.
“Fish had a tendency to be a man of few words, but one should never assume that was because of a lack of interest on his part, or a lack of desire to be involved or a lack of passion for a logical solution,” said long-time Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins this week. “Oh no, he was just a great listener. When he spoke, you damn well better be listening. What few words he may offer were well thought out, to the point and very constructive towards a solution. I learned a lot from Fish over my career with the town and have the utmost respect for all he did for Ocean City and Worcester County.”
City Engineer Terry McGean, whose career in Ocean City loosely parallels Adkins’, had similar sentiments about his former boss.
“He was a person that you respected the minute you met him,” he said. “The way I always described Fish was that there are certain people that when they tell me I was wrong, I was still sure I was right, but when Fish told me I was wrong, I knew I was wrong. We lost a great man today.”
Powell’s accomplishments as mayor of Ocean City are well documented and evident all over town. Mathias said this week Powell was instrumental in so many significant changes in the community almost too numerous to mention.
“His fingerprints are all over the beaches, the Boardwalk, the hospital, the Public Safety Building, the communications center and everywhere else and I am proud he allowed me to be along with him for the ride,” he said.
Meehan agreed with Mathias’ assessments of Powell’s contributions to the town.
“Just look around and you can see where the success we enjoy today can be directly attributed to Fish,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jeannie and his family. We all loved Fish and will miss him.”
Perhaps Powell’s biggest accomplishment was his key role in the beach replenishment project that has lasted for decades and is planned for decades more. After Hurricane Gloria tore up the Boardwalk and ravaged the beaches in Ocean City in 1985, it became apparent some sort of multi-level project was needed to protect the town’s beaches and the millions if not billions of dollars of property values.
With Powell at the helm, Ocean City was able to broker a multi-partner deal with the county, state and federal government to create beach replenishment. Out of those efforts was born the vast protective dune system, the sea wall along the Boardwalk and the renourishment of the beaches every four years if not more often. Under Powell’s watch, the beach replenishment partnership was locked in for 50 years.
“Right in the throes of the beach replenishment project, Fish was able to bring together the county, state and federal partners a get a deal like that for 50 years,” said Mathias. “That is a true testament to Fish’s legacy of bringing people together and a lesson I’ve learned as I’ve gone on in my political career.”
Out of those early days of beach replenishment, a future city councilwoman earned her stripes and set in motion a long tenure on the council thanks in large part to Powell. Former Ocean City Councilwoman Nancy Howard this week recalled Powell’s role in advancing her career.
“I did not serve with Fish, but he was responsible for me getting the job with the Department of Natural Resources on the beach replenishment project and I later ended up on the city council,” she said. “I owe so much to him for that. He was Ocean City to the bone. There was nothing false or put-on about Fish. He was just as he appeared. I am so grateful to him.”
Powell was also well respected in the resort business community and nurtured lasting relationships with its leaders over the decades. Resort business leader Charles “Buddy” Jenkins, whose company operates the historic fishing pier and the Jolly Roger amusement parks among others, fondly recalled his friendship with Powell this week.
“First of all, Fish Powell was not only a dear friend, but also represented the very best of Ocean City from his past history through his demise,” he said. “I remember Fish when he was a lifeguard and served the town in that capacity and I remember him as a young businessman involved in real estate and he was always impeccable in everything he did. He was always willing to listen and gather the facts before making any major decision. He always represented, first as a councilman and then a county commissioner and finally as mayor, the very best interests of our county and city. He will be sorely missed.”
Through it all the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company was Powell’s passion and he remained active in the company for decades and maintained a leadership role up until near the end of his days. Throughout the years, Powell was right out in front of most of the town’s emergencies as fire chief and later mayor and on many occasions, could be seen in the midst of the battle during some of the larger fires. Former Ocean City Emergency Management Director Clay Stamp this week recalled growing up in the fire company with Powell as its leader.
“It was from a young man’s eyes as a 14-year-old fire cadet that I first laid eyes on Fire Chief Fish Powell,” he said. “Salty, squared away, with a cigar in the corner of his mouth and donning a brilliant white fire chief’s helmet, barking out short, concise orders to many who followed them to bring an emergency situation under control. Later, as a volunteer firefighter and an Ocean City paramedic, emergency manager and eventually as director of emergency services, I learned how to become a leader from lessons learned from great men who served in the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company and largely from Fish Powell.”
Stamp recalled several occasions when Powell as mayor presided over hurricane and severe storm preparations and used his steady hand to firmly guide city leaders through pending disasters.
“Fish had the unique ability to remain calm in crisis situations, to see through the chaos and lay out some common-sense steps to address any challenge,” he said. “His steady hand allowed people to follow his lead with confidence. As a leader, you always knew where you stood with Fish- no ambiguity.”
Former Ocean City Police Department Captain and long-time firefighter Kevin Kirstein this week also fondly recalled Powell’s calm demeanor in the face of adversity.
“I remember several times being in the Emergency Operations Center as we were preparing for the arrival of severe weather,” he said. “The weather folks often called the storms wrong, but Mayor Powell got them correct for Ocean City every time. No matter what we were facing, he was the voice of reason and calm. It was a privilege to service with him.”
Mathias agreed Powell often depended on his own local knowledge of storms and tides garnered from years as a sea captain as he helped prepare the town for pending storms.
“Here we are getting all of these updates and satellite images from the National Weather Service and Fish has his maps out marking the progress and charting a storm’s course with a pencil,” he said. “And he was almost always right. There were more than a few times when he said, ‘Don’t worry Jimmy, we’re going to be okay with this one.’”
Long after Powell’s retirement from active fire service, he continued to be a steadying force around the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company according to current OCVFC President Jay Jester.
“I never served under Fish, but he has been a mentor to me and many other young guys in the fire company,” he said. “Every time you had a question, he always had the time for you. Over the last three, four or five years, he would come over to the Keyser Point station and walk around the apparatus for his exercise and he would always stop in my office on the way in and on the way out. We’d chat about a lot of stuff, mostly fire company stuff, but also life lessons.”
In addition to his role with the OCVFC, Jester said he and Powell shared some common bonds despite their age difference.
“My grandmother taught him in high school and he grew up on the Boardwalk and I grew up on the Boardwalk, so we had a connection,” he said. “The old timers have always gravitated to the back row at our regular meetings. We don’t put our older officers out to pasture, but they kind of graduate to the back row and Fish was at every meeting in that back row even until recently when he couldn’t do it anymore.”