At the end of the 19th century, Cape May Point was a thriving little community established as a religious retreat by prominent ministers and businessmen. Here, on July 10, 1885, a baby girl was born to the Reverend and Mrs. Reese Alsop. They called their daughter Mary O’Hara, after her maternal grandmother. Years later, upon the publication of her best-selling novel, My Friend Flicka, about the young son of a Wyoming rancher and the special horse he loves, the world would call Mary one of the most talented writers of her generation.
The Alsops were passing through Cape May Point on their way to the Episcopalian clergyman’s new Brooklyn parish when Mary entered the world. Though the exact location of Mary’s birth is unknown, Mrs. Alsop’s journal notes that she was attended by both a doctor and a nurse—unusual for the times and indicative of the Alsops’ position in society. Mary’s birth at Cape May Point gave the Alsops their third of four children. It also gave Reverend Alsop the perfect nickname for his beloved daughter.
“On the July night I was born my parents were traveling through New Jersey to take up my father’s new position,” wrote Mary at age 90 in her autobiography, Flicka’s Friend. “I was, as it were, dropped en route. So I became ‘Jersey’ to my father.”
“Jersey’s” childhood was privileged. She, her parents, older sister Elma, older brother Reese and younger sister Bess lived in the select neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. There were private schools, pretty dresses and parties. Summers were spent at Deercreek, the thousand-acre estate outside of Pittsburgh owned by her wealthy grandmother, Mary O’Hara Denny Spring. Grandma May, as she was known, was an elegant, cultured woman who had a profound impact on young Mary. Grandma May imparted her love of music and her talent as a pianist to her granddaughter, who regarded music as a thing of wonder.
“It flooded me with happiness. It was as if I opened a door into another world and that world was full of surprises and peace and beauty,” wrote Mary.
When Mary was six years old, her mother died, and Grandma May assumed an even bigger role in her life. Grandma May travelled to Europe several times with Mary and her sisters, staying at grand hotels and introducing the girls to fashionable, accomplished people. In addition to her relatives, Mary’s constant companions were her music—she became an accomplished piano and violin player—and her writing.
“I was destined to be a writer. I might almost say predestined, for I wrote my first short story when I was seven. As soon as it was finished I wrote another, and since then have never stopped writing.”
Upon their return from Europe, Grandma May moved the extended family into a big house in Brooklyn. Mary’s teenage years had all the hallmarks of a wealthy New York upbringing. She attended finishing school, made her debut to society and was courted by many young men. In 1905, against her father’s wishes, Mary married her third cousin, Kent Parrot, a charming and dashing young man with vague plans to enter law and politics. After the birth of their daughter O’Hara, they moved to Los Angeles and welcomed a son they called Kent. For several years, their lives were a swirl of country club dances, golf, parties and a parade of interesting people. (One day on the 18th fairway of the Los Angeles Country Club, Orville Wright taxied up to Mary in his new plane and offered to take her flying. Mary accepted.) Mary and Kent’s glittering life was eventually marred by Kent’s wandering eye, though, and they divorced.
Around this time, two exciting things happened that fed Mary’s artistic soul and also yielded an income for raising her children: she purchased her first piano, a cherished possession upon which she would successfully compose numerous songs for publication, and she became a screenwriter for Metro Pictures, one of the four big motion picture studios in Hollywood.
The 1920s were the zenith of the silent film era. Developing scripts for the silent screen involved the very specific craft of continuity writing. This was the intricate process of turning an original story or book into a script, complete with stage directions and the brief titles that would appear on screen to provide background to the audience. The best continuity writers received up to eight thousand dollars per script—a fortune in those days. Mary became one of the best, and was known as the Queen Bee for her talent. She went on to work with famous filmmakers such as Cecil B. DeMille, and to write continuities at Metro, Paramount and Warner Brothers studios for over 15 silent films, including The Last Card (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Braveheart (1925), and Framed (1927).
Mary’s second marriage took place during this prolific period. The end of World War I brought Helge Sture-Vasa to America. This strapping blond Swede was the son of a diplomat and a veteran of the U.S. Army’s Remount Service, which provided horses for troops during the war. Helge became a set builder in Hollywood, where he met Mary in 1922. Their marriage was a happy one in the beginning, marred only by the tragic death of Mary’s daughter O’Hara from Hodgkin’s Disease.
After O’Hara’s death, Mary and Helge moved to Wyoming in 1930 and bought a ranch outside of Cheyenne. Mary was captivated by the expansive vistas and wild horses who roamed freely in this beautiful part of the country. Helge named the home Remount Ranch, in honor of the horses he cared for during the war. His intention was to make his fortune as a sheep farmer. Mary was skeptical, but happy to make the move.
“I was ready for Wyoming,” she wrote.“It was almost as if I had intuited the fact that in Wyoming I would meet and get acquainted with those wild horses which roam our western plains. And, unless that had happened, I never could have written My Friend Flicka.”
One of these wild horses in particular became Mary’s inspiration for her novel. Mary was devoted to a young filly that, like Flicka of the novel, became entangled in barbed wire near a stream while roaming the range. After realizing she couldn’t free her pony alone, Mary hurried home for help. By the time they returned the next morning, Mary’s filly had died of her injuries. Mary was bereft. When she started writing My Friend Flicka at age 56, she decided to create a happier ending by having the young protagonist, Ken McLaughlin, stay by his Flicka’s side throughout the night. Ken’s love pulls his pony through, though at great cost to his own health.
Remount Ranch had its own trouble pulling through. The Great Depression had ruined its prospects as a sheep farm. To make ends meet, Helge and Mary opened the ranch as a summer camp for wealthy prep school boys. However, with the 1941 publication of My Friend Flicka, Mary’s writing career took off and life on the ranch became easier. The sequel, Thunderhead, followed in 1943 and Green Grass of Wyoming, the final book of the trilogy, in 1946. Twentieth Century Fox made each book into a movie during the 1940s, and My Friend Flicka was also developed into a 39-episode television series that ran from 1955 to 1956.
Unlike the success she experienced with her writing, Mary’s marriage to the philandering Helge was failing. They divorced in 1947 after 25 years together. Mary was alone again, but that didn’t stop her from living life.
“Her writing and integrity was how she weathered the storms of her two marriages,” said Melanie O’Hara, former faculty member at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, where she helped archive many of Mary’s personal papers for the school’s American Heritage Center.
Mary moved to Connecticut and built a house where she continued her writing and composing. She eventually wrote nine books, including The Son of Adam Wyngate in 1952 and Wyoming Summer in 1963. Despite her prolific writing, Mary never neglected her music, composing a folk musical titled The Catch Colt in 1961, and creating many well-regarded piano compositions, including May God Keep You and Wind Harp.
Mary’s later years were rich with grandchildren, her siblings and their families, and friends. My Friend Flicka was translated and published into 14 languages, and remade as a movie in 2006. At age 71 Mary saw The Catch Colt performed at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and again in Cheyenne. Her writing and composing continued, both from Connecticut and from her second home in Washington, D.C. near Kent and his family. Even the gradual loss of her vision couldn’t prevent her from writing, and she began her autobiography, Flicka’s Friend, on her ninetieth birthday. In it she said, “I am not just marking time. I could not do that. It would be too boring. Besides, no prolific writer comes to the end of one piece without another —sometimes two or three—already taking shape in his mind.”
Mary O’Hara died on October 14, 1980 at age 95. Cape May Point’s hometown girl had led a full and exciting life, leaving behind a rich writing and composition legacy.
This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue. Some information may have changed since publication.
They’re the hardest-working canines in town. You’ll see them in your favorite shops, hotels, and inns. They’re four-legged Cape May ambassadors, the ones guests and customers love to visit with, sometimes even if they’re not buying anything or staying there. Here are your friendly neighborhood dogs, and the places you can find them.
Mr. Freckles – Wanderlust
Mr. Freckles is an eight-year-old spaniel/Jack Russell who loves inspecting the plush chairs, helping customers check out, and napping in the sun by the front door at Wanderlust. He belongs to shop owners Brandi and Bob White, and has a special relationship with the sun and warm weather, having been born on the beaches of St. Croix, where the Whites have a winter home. The runt of the litter, Mr. Freckles was abandoned soon after birth.
“Abandoned puppies are so common that the people on the island have a special term for them. They call them ‘pot cakes,’” Brandi noted. “They’re picked up and taken to the local shelters where many of them are euthanized.”
The Whites hadn’t planned on getting a dog when daughter Avery first saw the little ball of white fluff.
“He was just so cute, even with the mange he had on his head,” Brandi said. “One look and we knew he had to become a part of the family.”
The family couldn’t leave Mr. Freckles behind when they were ready to head back to Cape May, so they had him altered so he could leave the country, as local law requires. On the flight, Mr. Freckles spiked a high fever, and his condition deteriorated upon arrival.
“I couldn’t help but think that we’d rescued this poor dog, just to have him die,” White said.
Cape May Veterinary Hospital’s Dr. Robert Moffat administered an antibiotic to bring his fever down, but when Mr. Freckles started to feel better, he began acting out.
“He was wild,” White said. “It was like living with a crazed beast. I think it was because of his lack of socialization. He went from being born, to being abandoned, to a shelter, to a world away.” White gave Mr. Freckles a socialization boot camp, and, after about six months of hard work and lots of bacon, his calmer, sweeter personality emerged.
Guinness and Jameson – Billmae Cottages
Guinness and Jameson, Rhodesian Ridgeback/Siberian Husky brother and sister, play concierge at the Billmae, along with owners Bob and Linda Steenrod.
Dogs have always been a part of the Steenrod family, so when Bob wanted to transform the aging structure next door into guest cottages, Linda said they had to include dogs.
Linda joked that when she first started dating Bob, she had to ask if he was a dog person. “Then I warned him that my dogs were in my life first and if someone has to go, it wouldn’t be them,” she laughed.
“Dogs are like family to us, and we understand that people don’t want to leave their furry family members behind when they go on vacation,” said Linda. “So we knew we had to make our business dog friendly.”
The Steenrods opened the Billmae Cottages in July 2001. Dogs of any size and breed are welcomed, and the Steenrods have hosted couples with one dog to a dog sitter caring for 13. They pride themselves on everyone having an enjoyable stay, including a “yappy hour” where human and canine guests mix and mingle.
Guinness and Jameson were born shortly after their mother was rescued as a stray. A friend adopted the mother, and contacted the couple, asking if they’d be interested in taking a puppy. Two four-week-olds were still available, so the Steenrods took both.
They’re named for an Irish vacation that ended the week the Steenrods brought the pups home. They started training them separately, but that didn’t last long.
“If you were in a half-mile of the house you would’ve thought we were murdering someone,” Linda said. “They would just howl when they were separated.”
They have a close bond but very different personalities. Guinness, explained Linda, is laid back. “When he isn’t napping, he likes to play with other dogs,” she said. “And he’ll whine if he can’t get his way.”
Jameson, on the other hand, is full of energy. “She loves to chew and spends a lot of time searching for squirrels and rabbits during walks,” Linda noted.
“My dogs keep me sane,” said Linda. “They’re wonderful stress relievers. With one look, they remind you of what’s important.”
Sammy – The Mason Cottage
Sammy is a 10-year-old Australian Cattle Dog/Pit Bull mix who still enjoys taking the stuffing out of toys and dozing on Goyette’s couch when he isn’t busy charming his fans.
Goyette and Sammy have come a long way from where they started their adventures together—Pittsburgh, to be exact.
“Sammy was everything that I wasn’t looking for in a dog,” she said about rescuing him. “I was actually looking at the dog next to him.” The one-year-old had a sign on his pen that he was shy, but within moments of meeting Goyette, he acted like he’d known her all his life. “I sat down on a beanbag chair, and he walked up to me and sat on my lap,” she said. “Everyone at the shelter had never seen him do that.”
Goyette knew she had to bring him home. “I was thinking about names on the way home and we passed a deli called Sammy’s,” she said. “It just seemed to fit him.”
After a couch met an unfortunate end, Sammy and Goyette enrolled themselves in puppy boot camp. “I was a single girl living alone in a city and I wanted Sammy to be a watchdog,” she said. “I wanted him to bark and be protective, but I also knew that I had to be in total control of him. I had to be the alpha dog.”
When Goyette took the job at the Mason Cottage in March 2009, bringing Sammy along took some negotiation, and another round of boot camp to unlearn his watchdog ways. “It took one weekend,” Goyette said. “And then he learned not to bark as guests came and not to go past the office door. It was a relief, because we were a package deal. I wasn’t going to take the job if he couldn’t come along.” Now the owners are now just as head over heels for him as his fans.
“We get notes from guests we’ve never met that mention they can’t wait to see Sammy,” Goyette said. “Other people want me to send pictures of him, and some guests even send him Christmas presents.” Even though he’s adapted to a life full of human interaction, he enjoys time to himself. “He’s quirky like that,” Goyette laughed.
Sammy walks himself by carrying the end of his own leash and prefers the peaceful off-season to stroll through town or along the beach. He keeps his toys in a basket by his favorite couch, where he sleeps underneath a painting of a dog that shares a resemblance. And while he’s comfortable in Goyette’s apartment, he doesn’t go into the kitchen, not even for his favorite foods, watermelons or carrots.
Sammy is getting up in years, but he joins Patti during yoga practice and wrestles with Goyette’s boyfriend, Will Frame.
“Sammy’s the greatest example of forgiveness and unconditional love,” Goyette said. “And he’s taught me the importance of naps.”
Joy – Victorian Motel
John and Suzanne Cooke, who manage the Victorian, have a special place in their hearts for Golden Retrievers. Ellie was the first to oversee business at the motel, enjoying her job for over 12 years before she passed. The Cookes knew their home and the motel wasn’t the same without a dog.
After some research, they found a breeder, visited a new litter, and it was love at first sight for both the Cookes and Joy.
Suzanne decided on her name, because what else would you call a dog who’s just so joyful and expressive and made everyone around her so happy?
Joy was enrolled in puppy kindergarten at Cape May Obedience Club. “Goldens are great dogs, but when they’re puppies it can really test your patience,” said John. “Let’s just say that there were some tear-filled nights.”
The couple lives on the motel property, so it was especially important that Joy understand boundaries, respond to commands, and learn how to interact with guests. Joy quickly started showing off her obedience class smarts. She now knows she can’t go beyond the gate in the motel’s office and how to react calmly to guests. However, she can’t hide her excitement for two of her favorite long-time guests, both named Jim.
Jim Cressen frequently vacations in Cape May, and when he stays at the motel, Joy is there when he checks in. “All I have to say is ‘Uncle Jim is here’ and Joy’s at my side,” said John.
For Jim Crawley, the Cookes let Joy break the rules by visiting his room and sitting with him in his wheelchair.
Joy is also fond of children and always gives them a special greeting.
“She loves kids and knows exactly how to respond to them,” said John.
When Joy takes walks around town, people want to stop and meet her. “They could care less about whoever is walking her,” he said. “It’s all about Joy.”
Sometimes people slow their cars to yell out a greeting or hand out treats while she’s out walking. Her popularity has inspired John’s writing and photography, and Joy’s been the subject of a few of his blogs and star of her own Facebook page.
When Joy isn’t at the front desk, she enjoys walks along Poverty Beach in the mornings and exploring Higbee Beach in late afternoon. “She loves her adoring public, but it’s nice to escape the crowds and let her run and just enjoy being a dog,” said John.
Weener and Chewey – Cape May Carriage Company
Weener, a Chihuahua/Cairn Terrier, and Chewey, a Chihuahua/Beagle, are often perched on a carriage driver’s seat, greeting visitors and occasionally showing their protective side.
Chantel Semanchik, owner of Cape May Carriage Company, didn’t think she’d ever own little dogs. “Weener was an accident,” she laughed. Five years ago, she visited friends in Arizona who owned an unneutered Chihuahua. During Semanchik’s stay, the dog was accidentally let out with a male dog. Nature took its course, and, when a litter of puppies arrived, Semanchik’s friends suggested she take one home.
“There was a runt that the mother was starting to alienate and neglect,” she said. “They were only four weeks old. I really didn’t want to take on such a young dog, and I certainly didn’t want to make the trip back to New Jersey with a puppy.”
Nevertheless, that runt went home with Semanchik.
“She was about the size of a hamster and I honestly didn’t know if she’d be able to survive a long road trip. I tried to stay detached, but when you’re stuck on a cross-country road trip with a puppy that needs constant care, it’s impossible not to bond,” said Semanchik. “When I’d stop at a motel, I’d pull out the nightstand drawer as a makeshift bed for her. She ate with me, slept with me and went everywhere with me.”
By the time they returned home, Weener and Semanchik were inseparable.
“I was doing carriage rides in New York City then, but Weener was so young I wanted to have her with me. So, I started bringing her to work,” Semanchik said. “She started her carriage dog career riding in my shirt pocket.”
Now, Weener navigates her way to the driver’s seat, where she sits proudly. Semanchik said that couples who rent carriages for weddings sometimes request that Weener join them. “She has a tuxedo just for those special occasions,” Semanchik said.
Chewey joined Semanchik’s family about a year ago, part of a litter that was dumped at the shelter. Semanchik said the puppies were so young that the rescue group caring for them didn’t know if they were Chihuahua/Jack Russell Terriers or Chihuahua/Beagles.
“We thought she was part Jack Russell but as she grew, she acted and looked more like a Beagle,” Semanchik said. “She got her name because she chews everything.”
The pair loves to work. “They know the way to work and about a block away, they’ll start flipping out in the truck,” she said. “They’ve got their own special beds there, and toys and treats, but what they really love is showing off.”
Semanchik said both dogs like the horses, and are closely monitored when interacting with them, but Weener is more fearless, while Chewey gives them more space.
“I’m so lucky to be able to work with my dogs. It’s humbling because not many people get that chance,” noted Semanchik. “My typical day starts at 9am and can go until midnight. It would be terrible to be away from them that long. Plus, I think it helps with keeping a good attitude. Whenever we’re stressed, they’re there to lift our spirits, and customers tend to be in a better mood around them. Who could be upset when you have these two showing off?”
Mariah – Washington Street Mall
Mariah is a three-year-old black Labrador Retriever owned by Kathy Burns, and she’s become a mall ambassador. Burns works at Fit & Chics and the Stockton Inn, but spends her free time with Mariah.
“She goes everywhere with me. More people know her than me,” Burns said. “And everywhere she goes, people seem to fall in love with her. She’s really an exceptional dog.”
Burns bred Labradors with a partner for years, and Mariah was from the last litter she bred. All the puppies were to be placed, but Burns had a special bond with Mariah. “She had such a wonderful personality, and even as a puppy she was the picture-perfect version of a Labrador, with a beautiful coat, large eyes and a kind face.”
Still, Burns thought it might be better if Mariah was placed elsewhere, since she’d be moving to an apartment in Cape May.
“Even after I’d made what I thought would be my final decision about not bringing her home, I’d still call my partner and ask about her,” she said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”
Meanwhile, Mariah was growing from a fun-loving puppy to a mature, laid-back adult dog. She took to obedience training so well that she started training as a therapy dog. The only thing she didn’t have was a permanent home.
Burns finally decided that her life wasn’t complete without Mariah, and asked her landlord’s permission to bring her home. “When she came to live with me that was the second best decision I ever made. The best one was moving to Cape May,” Burns said.
Mariah’s popularity runs the gamut from seniors in Victorian Towers to strangers on vacation. “She’s even been in people’s Christmas cards photos,” Burns said. “There are people who’ve stopped me during the holidays while we’re walking and asked if they could pose with Mariah. So somewhere out there, she’s on a Christmas card.”
Burns said that Mariah’s a personable but calm canine. “She has a good sense about who needs some time with her,” she said. “And I think that’s especially true for people who’ve had a Lab. They just want to pet her.”
Tug – Galvanic
If one of Ryan Platzer’s employees were to fall asleep or take frequent ice cream breaks, it wouldn’t go over well. However, he lets it slide when it comes to Tug, the four-year-old Chocolate Labrador who accompanies him to Galvanic, his men’s clothing shop on the Washington Street Mall.
Ryan and his fiancée, Samantha, had been dating when they decided to get a dog, one that would fit their active lifestyle. They looked into various shelters, rescue groups, and breeders until they found Tug. The pup was born in Detroit and flown to Philadelphia, where the couple picked him up.
“His plane was delayed and we were waiting around with other people who were picking up dogs. When he arrived and they took them out of the crate, everyone commented on how big he was,” said Platzer. “The guy managing the dog pick-up said he’d seen a lot of puppies, but never one as big as Tug.”
Tug continued to grow until he more resembled a brown bear than a Labrador. He’s now 120 pounds and tall, strong, and full of energy. But Tug’s the kind of dog who fits well into the couple’s busy schedule, including running the shop.
“He loves meeting new people and making a connection with them. Customers stop in just to say hi to him,” Platzer said.
“A lot of people relate to him because he’s a Lab and they had or knew a Lab once,” he added. “And some customers are on vacation, had to leave their dog behind and just like spending time with a loveable guy like Tug.”
Tug has calmed down a little, but Platzer said he still gets over excited and that gets him into trouble. His enthusiasm for human interaction is only trumped by his love for snacks, especially ice cream. Despite his size, he’s been able to sneak out to the ice cream shop next door, where he likes to sit with customers and beg for a taste of their treats.
“The first time he did it, we were freaking out looking for him. No one saw him leave and we were panicked thinking of where he’d gone,” Platzer said. “Then someone came in and said a giant brown dog was eating ice cream next door. We ran over and he was sharing a cone with a little girl.”
But some days even the promise of meeting new people and sneaking an ice cream cone isn’t enough to motivate Tug.
“He loves to get his beauty rest and some days he’d love to sleep in and not have to work,” said Platzer. “Just like most people, he needs a day off.”
Ziggy Sunset Liquors
When Katy O’Hara goes to work at her family’s Sunset Boulevard store, her black Lab mix, Ziggy, is at her side. O’Hara adopted Ziggy six years ago while a college sophomore in Colorado.
“I lived in a town that was very dog oriented, and it was normal for people to take their dogs everywhere,” she said.
O’Hara started looking at local shelters before connecting with a 13-week-old puppy and adopting her. Inspired by her love of David Bowie, O’Hara named the pup Ziggy Stardust. The pair became inseparable.
“I guess I was just lucky to have gotten such a relaxed dog,” O’Hara said. “She didn’t need special training. She’s always been well behaved and content to go where I go.”
After college, Ziggy and O’Hara traded the Colorado mountains for Cape May beaches, and Ziggy’s laid-back demeanor fit right in with the Sunset Liquors staff.
“I call her the designated greeter,” O’Hara said. “She welcomes everyone to the store and gets excited when our regular customers come in.”
Customers often bring their own dogs in, and some have bonded with Ziggy, including Tug from Galvanic, and a Dachshund named Martin.
“We’re pet friendly at Sunset Liquors,” O’Hara said. “We have dog treats at the counter, and are always willing to accommodate customers with well-behaved pets.”
Because of the long hours O’Hara works, she’s thankful she’s able to bring Ziggy into the store. “Otherwise I’d never see her and I don’t want her sitting home alone for hours,” she said. “She’s much happier making friends at the store or sneaking outside to nap in the sun.”
When the duo isn’t working, they go to Higbee Beach, and Ziggy also loves running alongside O’Hara, pulling her along on her skateboard.
During the off-season, the pair takes road trips to Colorado, where Ziggy plays while O’Hara snowboards.
Ziggy is teaching O’Hara’s sister’s 13-week-old puppy, Maizey, how to be a well-behaved shop dog, so the tradition of having a Sunset Liquors canine greeter will continue.
So, you want to get married in Cape May, do you? That’s an excellent notion. The quaint beauty and charms of America’s oldest seaside resort provide not just the perfect backdrop for a summer vacation, but also an ideal setting for tying the knot—ask me, I know. I was a Pennsylvania resident when I married here in 2001, and in my mind, Cape May was not just at the top of the list, it WAS the list.
Indeed, approximately 500 weddings per year are performed in Cape May, a number that’s steadily ticked upward over the past decade. Think about that for a minute: that’s approximately 10 weddings per week, more than a wedding a day. Given the size of our fair city, that’s quite a lot, and it’s largely because so many of those who marry here are non-residents who choose Cape May to make their nuptials all the more special. One of the reasons for that, of course, is because Cape May is a National Historic Landmark, its Victorian architecture providing a vintage tableau. But the big draw remains the beach. We spoke with a few wedding planners and officiants around town, and they all estimated that 90% of the weddings in which they participated take place on the sand.
Catherine Walton has been running Weddings by the Sea for over 18 years—“I’ve almost lost track,” she laughed. When we asked her about the most memorable one she could recall, she didn’t hesitate. “It was back in 2004 or so. It’s still the biggest wedding that I’ve ever done, if not the biggest in Cape May that I can remember,” Catherine told us. “It took place at the Beach Club, and I think the final price tag on it was $250,000. The couple was from New York City. There were only about 150 guests, but the venue was unbelievable. We had several huge tents set up—one was strictly for desserts, with every possible candy, cakes, and ice cream that you could imagine. The guests swooped in on it like locusts—they went nuts,” she laughed. “The lighting alone cost $37,000, and there were four-foot sparklers like a gauntlet along the path outside the tents. There were sand castles, and they even had an ice cream truck parked outside next to the trolleys, so the guests could get a treat for the ride back to their hotels. It was like something out of a movie.”
If you, like most of us, don’t have $250k to spend on a wedding, fear not. Bob Steenrod has performed ceremonies in which it was just the bride and groom, where he not only officiated, he had to provide a witness to the nuptials. “Sometimes I drag Linda along,” he said, referring to his wife, with whom he runs the Billmae Cottage. “And then I just promise to buy her dinner.” He said he once married a couple at a B&B, and pressed the desk clerk and chambermaid into service as witnesses.
The biggest issue with beach weddings is, of course, the weather. I recently took a walk along the promenade on a picture perfect Saturday afternoon. It was 70 degrees, with just enough of a breeze to send flags fluttering a bit, and not a cloud in the sky. I saw chairs being set up on Broadway beach for a wedding and thought “How perfect!” But Mother Nature isn’t always that cooperative. “I remember performing a ceremony at the Cove pavilion in April, and it was chilly and really windy,” Bob said. “Sometimes it’s hard for everyone to keep focused when the bridesmaids’ dresses are blowing up constantly.”
Crystal Hardin, another wedding officiant in town, couldn’t agree more. She’s been helping folks say “I do” in Cape May for 12 years now, and her most memorable wedding by far featured Hurricane Igor as an uninvited guest. “I was performing what was then called a civil union for two gentlemen, to be held on the beach. They were circus people, and they had guests flying in from Nevada, Florida, and as far away as England,” she said. “There was just a little bit of rain at first, and then it hit, and we had to move everything into the Hotel Macomber at the last minute. My sons helped me decorate, and the ceremony was just so moving. Nature was the music, and everyone was crying. My youngest son said afterwards, ‘Mom, that was SO COOL!’ And it was—we overcame Igor.”
If you don’t want to take your chances on the beach, there are other options. Our officiants told us of marrying couples on the steps of their favorite bed and breakfast inns, in friends’ backyards, even at the Cape May Lighthouse. West Cape May Mayor Pam Kaithern remembers one young couple that she married atop the lighthouse on a beautiful early summer day. “They were so lovely, starry-eyed, even,” she said. “And I don’t have to tell you that the view was breathtaking.” Any other memories from that day? “Yes,” she chuckled. “The stairs are worse coming down than they are going up.”
The garden behind the Chalfonte is a spot that’s gaining in popularity, according to Catherine Walton. “People are starting to stick to places where the reception’s being held for their ceremony, too, instead of transporting people back and forth from one place to another, especially in the summer. If the reception’s at Congress Hall, they’ll get married on the lawn there. If it’s at The Grand, the beach out front. If it’s at the Southern Mansion, they’ll get married in the garden there, etc.”
In the end, though, people are people, and weddings are fraught with emotion no matter where they’re held. “You just have to be ready for anything,” Bob Steenrod said. “Once I was marrying a couple at the Montreal in front of 60 guests. The groom didn’t have the rings when I asked for them and he bolted out of the room to get them. I had to stand there for 10 minutes and keep the bride calm and 60 people entertained until he got back.” He said he once counseled a couple in his office when the bride-to be noticed a Rastafarian hat—complete with dreadlocks—on his hat rack. A Jamaican native, she asked Bob to wear the hat when he performed the ceremony. So what did he do? “I wore it, of course. The bride gets what she wants. Each wedding is special, because each person is special.”
Katlyn Mogavero, Director of Catering at The Grand, definitely agrees. “We had a bride in March 2013 who wanted a fairytale wedding. And she arrived at the ceremony on a ‘unicorn.’ It was a horse from Cape May Carriage Company with a horn attached, but she wanted a fairytale wedding, from her décor to her dress to her demeanor, and that’s what she had. “
For Krystina Kennedy, Event Coordinator at Congress Hall, that’s the name of the game. “I’ve been doing this for four years, and I always say ‘If I don’t cry at a father-daughter dance, it’s time to get out.’ The thing that makes it really memorable for me, though, is building a relationship with these couples, and having them return to Cape May to celebrate anniversaries and growing families.”
Bob Steenrod agrees. “I married a young couple recently, and their family was so taken with this town, I’ll be doing their parents vow renewal ceremony. People love a good wedding, and they love Cape May.”
A year ago, Ron Goldstein, then president of Cape May’s Chamber of Commerce, knew little about Stephen Smith and the summer home he built on Lafayette Street in 1846. And whenever Goldstein passed it on his way downtown, he could barely see the building behind the shrubs and trees that obscured it. But last year when he read in this magazine about Smith’s role in the Underground Railroad and his leadership in the fight to end slavery, Goldstein was inspired. He knew he needed to do something to make Smith’s contributions more visible to the Cape May community. As head of the Chamber, he found a way to do just that.
Goldstein thought the Chamber could help beautify the house as part of its community outreach program. He proposed that the Chamber landscape the large area around the house, and the Chamber’s Board enthusiastically endorsed the plan. Goldstein asked Bernadette Matthews, now the Chamber’s First Vice President, to coordinate the effort. “Stephen Smith’s contributions to the country made it a worthwhile project,” explains Matthews. “We wanted to do our part in beautifying the site and building a sense of community doing that.”
Smith’s home is one of the few remaining buildings of what was once a vibrant and large African American community, comprising close to 30 percent of Cape May’s population in the early 20th century. By bringing the home to the community’s attention—both local and visiting—it “makes for a more comprehensive history…It is in a visible place, but it was obscure,” says Matthews.
In addition to making the house more noticeable, the Chamber has also made Stephen Smith and his place in history more visible when they included a full page about Stephen Smith in the latest edition of The Visitors Guide of Cape May.
As detailed in the Fall 2015 issue of Cape May Magazine, Smith was one of the richest black men in America before the Civil War, operating a coal and lumber business in Columbia, Pennsylvania and investing in real estate in Philadelphia and Cape May. In an era of intense hostility against free blacks in the north, when they struggled merely to find jobs, his ability to operate one of the most successful businesses was particularly remarkable.
He could have been content with that achievement. But with a flood of people fleeing slavery, Smith felt it his sacred duty to help them, at great risk to himself. He and his business partner and relative, William Whipper, built a false end to their rail cars to hide people. Along with their coal and lumber, they ferried hundreds of people further north on their way to freedom in Canada.
Smith was also a founder of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, an affiliate of William Lloyd Garrison’s national organization, and was involved with many protests and activities demanding an end to slavery. He also played a key part in coalescing free blacks in northern states to demand their civil rights, especially the right to vote.
The Cape May Magazine article also detailed the efforts underway to restore the house by the four siblings who presently own it. They want to use it to retell Smith’s story through tours and presentations. In 1932 the Hampton family bought the house for $1 from their close friend, Smith’s grandniece. In the late 1960s, when the house was slated for demolition under the town’s controversial urban renewal plan, Amelia Hampton, mother of the current owners, saved it by sending an emergency telegram directly to President Lyndon Johnson.
Jo-Anne Hampton is leading the family effort to restore the house, but she lives in California and at times she feels far removed from life here. Although she gets back from time to time to Cape May, where she spent most of her early summers, she says the Chamber’s activity has inspired her own efforts.
“Sometimes I feel that I am doing things alone and I have a vision but no one else shares it,” she says. “But then I realize I am not alone. I have people I haven’t even met—people like Ron Goldstein—taking care of day-to-day things to help me continue what I am doing. The community benefits, the city benefits. It brings new life, brings somebody back from the 1800s, their philanthropy and work.”
The work is being authorized through the Chamber’s outreach program, created to convey the business community’s commitment to the city as a whole. In addition to providing scholarships to high school students, the Chamber selects nonprofit organizations each year to support. In 2015, the Chamber organized fundraisers and donated money to both Animal Outreach and the Cape May Food Closet.
The timing was auspicious for Goldstein’s proposal to begin to beautify the grounds of the Stephen Smith house. This year the city has grant money to significantly upgrade the parks along Lafayette Street, and a nonprofit helped the city to build a new gazebo and fountain, along with benches and plantings, at Rotary Park. The Stephen Smith house is one of the few private residences between the two park areas on Lafayette Street. Everyone on the Chamber’s Board agreed that landscaping it and drawing attention to such an important historical figure enhances the gateway to the city.
To that end, Good Neighbor Detail Management owner Annie Lentz is donating her professional landscaping services to the project. Her staff spent several days this past spring removing shrubs, trees, and lots of weeds that had overtaken the large yard on the side of the house. Lentz designed the plantings to be in keeping with the Victorian era of the house, putting in lavender plants, a favorite of the period, as well as daisies, along the front porch. To soften the box-like appearance of the simple structure, she has planted hydrangeas on one side of the building. She plans a kitchen garden with basic herbs, including parsley and rosemary, and will add other bushes and shrubs.
Cape Island Home and Garden is providing the plants at a discount. “We want to preserve the history of Cape May; that’s what this is all about,” says Judi Bernard, co-owner with Cindy Franklin, of the garden center. “I’m kind of a history freak.” Bernard adds that she owns a home not far from the Stephen Smith house, which dates back to his time. A long-time Cape May family had owned it, and she thinks it’s likely that they knew him. “We should continue the connection,” she says.
Lentz planned a garden area around a Victorian style metal bench, donated by TreeHouse Antiques, which is owned by Susan DeMaio and Wayne Stewart. When Lentz asked if they wanted to be involved with the project, they readily agreed. “We all need to work together,” Susan said, “and this is a small way my husband and I can contribute to that.” In addition, a birdbath was recently donated by the Eldredge House in West Cape May.
Jo-Anne Hampton also sees Stephen Smith as a unifying force. “We as a community are more connected by him (Smith) than I ever would have imagined,” she says. And she is thankful that the restoration will “recognize someone so important. It reminds me that one person in a community can do great things. Even now he’s a connecting factor.”
While many of the pieces have fallen into place to improve the appearance of the Steven Smith House, Ron Goldstein said that the project is certainly not yet completed. He indicated that plans for additional landscaping have been drawn up that include a driveway and possible hedge to be added by Spring 2017.
The first sign that something unusual was happening on a freezing day in late January, deep into Cape May’s off season, was that there was nowhere to park within blocks of Convention Hall. Outside, latecomers were streaming in twos and threes up the steps, and unlike many events in town that lean toward beach casual, folks were dressed to the nines. Inside, the place was packed: hundreds of men and women, sipping wine or cocktails, perusing an expansive array of silent auction items.
Another thing was unusual, too. Unlike many events in Cape May, where—let’s face it—the attendees often skew toward older and grayer, the crowd was chock full of people in their 20s and 30s. And at the center of the action, smiling and greeting his way through the shoulder-to-shoulder scene, was Lower Township’s Matt Szczur. Nattily outfitted in a sharp blue suit and a radiant orange shirt open at the collar, Szczur presented a silhouette that was tall, trim, fit and athletic-looking. Which wasn’t surprising, given that Szczur is a three-sport athlete who just happens to play for the Chicago Cubs, the World Champion baseball club that ended a century-long drought by winning last fall’s World Series.
Szczur (pronounced: Caesar, like the emperor or the salad) is, of course, a local boy made really, really good. Born and raised in Cape May County and a product of Lower Cape May Regional High School, he just might be Cape May’s most famous resident—and not only for his skills on the field. For Szczur is also—and humbly—a hero of another kind, as bone marrow donor and a spark plug for a nationwide charity drive to raise funds and donors for Be the Match. It is an organization operated by the National Bone Marrow Donor program aimed at fostering transplants to help cure people with life-threatening blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma.
That evening, Convention Hall was hosting a “Szcz the Day” benefit for the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation. And the reason why so many millennials and Generation Xers were in attendance is that Szczur, who organized and promoted the event, attracted sports fans, fellow LCMR grads, and alumni from Villanova University, where Szczur was a standout star. Talley, also there for the festivities, was Szczur’s Villanova coach, and the person who initially inspired Szczur to get involved with Be the Match.
It was, as we shall see, a decision that could have drastically affected Szczur’s sports career. But, he told Cape May Magazine, it wasn’t something he thought twice about, and he’s never looked back. As he told ESPN, which produced a stirring video account of Szczur’s journey from star athlete to bone marrow donor, it was just something he had to do. “To be able to make a difference, I honestly think that anyone in my place would have done the same thing,” he said.
Szczur, who’ll be 28 in July, was born and raised in Cape May Court House and grew up in Erma. From a very early age, both Matt and his older brother, Marc, were naturals at sports and, according to their father, Marc Szczur, they excelled in virtually every one they explored. Beginning at three years old, they participated in karate, pee-wee wrestling, soccer, tee-ball, Little League baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. “When Matt was three, four, five years old he hung around with his older brother, and he was as good or better than he was in just about everything,” said Marc. “He was always working out, and he was always trying to get bigger, better, faster, stronger.”
Both boys, said Marc, were good kids. “Sure, they got into their share of trouble, but they were so involved with sports that they couldn’t get into too much trouble,” he said, laughing.
Matt Szczur is a legend at LCMR, where he earned varsity letters in baseball, football, and track and field. On the baseball field, both brothers excelled, and for a time they formed a fraternal battery, with Matt catching and Marc pitching. “That,” says Marc Sr., “was really fun to watch.” In 2007, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers noticed Matt’s prowess at bat and in the field, and he was drafted by the Dodgers in the 38th round to enter pro ball. Instead, Matt opted to head for Villanova upon graduating.
Coach Talley, who recruited Szczur to Nova’s football program, says that the school had their eye on him since ninth grade. “Matty was someone we had out to our summer camps when he was in high school, and we were able to evaluate him as an athlete,” he told Cape May Magazine. “He was someone who could play several positions. And he was a two-sport guy, who could play baseball, too.”
At Villanova, Szczur played football in the fall and baseball in the spring. Truth be told, he might have been able to turn professional in either sport. “To be honest, I probably always preferred baseball to football,” he told Cape May Magazine. Some of his reasoning was practical, since the professional life of a football player averages just a few years, while baseball pros tend to stay in the game far longer. “When I thought about it, it just seemed like baseball players had a lot more longevity in their careers.” Not many people, of course, ever get to make that choice.
It would be Talley who opened the door for Szczur’s life-changing decision to get involved with the bone marrow donation program.
In 1992—when Szczur was just three years old—Talley began working to find people willing to be bone marrow donors. He started by asking Villanova football players to lead the way. This is how it works: a person can offer to become a bone marrow donor, but only if the specifics of their genetic makeup are compatible with the bone marrow needs of a specific cancer sufferer. In the vast majority of cases, it’s a long shot, and many people whose blood is tested never find a match. (According to the Chicago Tribune, which profiled Szczur’s involvement with Be the Match, it’s a 1-in-80,000 chance that a donor and a recipient will match.) If, in fact, a match does turn up, and if the would-be recipient qualifies for a transplant, then the volunteer still has the option, naturally, of deciding whether or not to follow through.
Talley was excited about the idea of involving student athletes on campus at Villanova. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got 90 healthy football players,” he told Cape May Magazine. Many of them signed up, and Talley began to expand the effort, drawing in other area colleges, including Temple University. “I was trying at the beginning to get local schools and colleges to have bone marrow drives,” he said. The program grew from a dozen schools to more than 40 by the mid-2000s, and today it encompasses more than 70 colleges and universities nationwide. In 2010, he founded the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation, with thousands of potential donors. “Recently, we hit the 5,000 mark in terms of student athletes,” he said. The National Bone Marrow Donor Program/Be the Match has completed more than 70,000 transplants since the late 1970s, and it currently does 6,400 a year.
In 2006, as a Villanova freshman, Szczur—who had a friend in high school who had battled leukemia—signed up. And three years later, in 2009, right in the middle of the football season, Szczur learned that a young girl in Ukraine, Anastasia Olkhovsky, was a match. Without blinking, knowing that if anything were to go wrong with the procedure, it could end his chance of becoming a professional athlete, Szczur agreed to go ahead.
Though often considered a routine procedure, having bone marrow extracted for a donation is not exactly a walk in the park. It is, according to the ESPN report on Szczur, “E:60 Risking It All,” an “exhausting, three-hour” event which, in some cases, can lead to severe damage to the donor’s spleen and other side effects. Despite all that, Szczur wasn’t deterred. In introducing Szczur at Convention Hall in Cape May in January, Kevin Reilly, a former special teams player for the Philadelphia Eagles who’s now a broadcaster—and a cancer survivor himself—described it this way: “It’s 2009. You’ve got a chance for a national championship. Your best player is Matt Szczur,” said Reilly. “Matt didn’t even hesitate.”
As it turned out, Olkhovsky wasn’t quite ready—yet—to be a recipient. Szczur went on that year to lead the Villanova Wildcats to a national championship in an upset, 23–21 win over the University of Montana. In the championship game, Szczur racked up 159 yards with two touchdowns, and he was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.
That spring, however, while Szczur was on the field for Villanova’s baseball team—and while expecting possible offers from both the NFL and Major League Baseball—he was informed that his bone marrow was needed, and right away. It was the climax of the baseball season, but once again he didn’t hesitate. “When he was told that he would miss some games in the greatest season of his life, he just said, ‘So be it,’” said Talley. Not only—Szczur would learn later—would the transplant be successful, but the whole story took a magical turn. In his last at-bat before missing 10 days for the bone marrow transfer, Szczur hit a home run. Then, in his first at-bat back on the field, he homered again.
None of this surprises Talley. “Matt is a small-town guy, with small-town values,” he said. “He’s really a dream come true. He’s got a heart as big as a football field.”
“I never really thought of it as a really big deal,” said Szczur. “It was all worth it, and when I saw the effect that it had on Anastasia’s family, I knew it was the right thing to do.”
A few weeks after his bone marrow helped save Olkhovsky’s life, Szczur was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB draft, earning a $100,000 signing bonus and an additional $500,000 if he agreed to pass up a football career. Later, he signed a $1.5 million deal with the Cubs, moving from the minors to the major league team in 2014. He had stints with the Cubs in both 2015 and 2016. In limited action last year, playing in 107 games, Szczur hit a respectable .259, with five home runs, nine doubles, a triple, and 24 RBIs. And last April 29, Szczur hit his first grand slam home run in the eighth inning of a 6-1 win over the Atlanta Braves.
Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, is effusive about Szczur. “He’s kind of like a manager’s dream player. He knows his role. He stays ready. He’s very versatile.” Last October, Maddon took the Cubs into the post-season and eventually the World Series, which the Cubbies won in seven games over the Cleveland Indians—the Cubs’ first World Series victory since 1908.
For Szczur, the post-season was bittersweet, however. Despite his credible season stats, Szczur was left off the Cubs post-season roster, and didn’t see any action. He spent the Series on the bench, in uniform, rooting for his buddies but unable to contribute. “It was hard,” he told Cape May Magazine. Nevertheless, Szczur was part of the Cubs history-making season, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he’ll cherish forever.
For Marc Szczur, Matt’s father, it’s all like a dream come true. “I’m a baseball fanatic,” he said. “The way I feel is, it’s more than just being proud. It’s fun.” A mechanic who works at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, Marc gets a couple of months off in the summer after the boardwalk is up and running, and he often travels to Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and New York to see his son play ball. “When they’re playing the Phillies, sometimes we’ll have 50 or 75 friends, and the whole family, at a tailgate party.”
At Convention Hall, looking out at the hundreds of people gathered to raise money for Talley’s foundation and for Szczur’s “Szcz the Day” program, Lower Township Mayor Eric Simonsen summed up Szczur’s journey so far. “You can set records in your local high school. You can go off to college and be the MVP,” he said. “But not too many people can say, ‘I saved someone’s life.’”