Mary Maxey and Barbara Brewer. Photo by Carolyn Watson Photography.
It’s hard to imagine life without email, the Internet or cheap long-distance phone calls. Back in the dark ages (well, the early ‘80s) the Internet was solely a military thing, Prodigy was polite code for an annoying kid, and CompuServe and Google were barely even words, much less proper nouns. If you asked somebody to Google you back then, you might have gotten your face slapped (or perhaps made a new friend…).
The people who pioneered the conveniences we take for granted were young, idealistic, and driven. Many, like Rehoboth Beach resident Barbara Brewer, were remarkably forward-thinking. If cable TV engineers had listened to her in ’84, they wouldn’t now be digging up thousands of miles of coaxial cable to replace it with fiber optics. The lightening-fast filaments would already be there.
Barbara was born in Miami, Florida where her dad was a Navy meteorologist. She spent her early years in Adak, Alaska (part of the Aleutian Islands) and in the late ‘60s she lived in Guam, where she watched B-52s thunder down the runway hourly on their way to Vietnam. She attended 13 different schools before she graduated high school, and attributes her love of travel to the fact that she never lived anywhere for more than two years.
Her first job was at the Winter Park Telephone Company in Florida, teaching long-distance operators their craft—with actual callers. If (when) things went awry, the company would often lose customers. As a result, they developed a computer-based simulator that sparked the interest of ITT North. The big company acquired the training subsidiary, and Barbara was part of the deal. She set up teaching sites in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. It was1978. She was single. She loved her job. “I’d plan my sessions so I could dance all night at Studio 54 [yes, there was one in St. Thomas], nap on the beach ‘til 10 a.m., go to work, and do it all over again.” Around 1980 she became the first female assigned to a top-secret NATO project that took her to Belgium, Holland, France and Germany.
Barbara’s long-time desire to be a minister was in direct conflict with her burgeoning desires for a same-sex relationship. But in those days, one sublimated those feelings and shoehorned oneself into the revered traditional roles. In ‘82 Barbara married an officer in the U.S. Air Force, subsequently landing a job with MCI in Washington, D.C. She came out shortly thereafter, and within two years the marriage was over (so much for sublimation). She and her husband remained friends for years.
Barbara was making good money at a fast-growing, leading-edge company where powerful positions were occupied by the smartest and the youngest. MCI was using internal email long before it was standard, and in fact it was Senior VP Vinton Cerf who co-designed the TCP/IP protocols that shaped the architecture of the Internet. In 1984 Brewer presented a speech to the Society of Cable TV Engineers where she urged them to lay fiber optic rather than coaxial cable in anticipation of new services. She was met with polite rejection. MCI promoted her to director of product development where she helped create the “Friends & Family” and “1-800-COLLECT” systems, since adapted by long-distance services throughout the world.
In 1989, her friends invited her to a brunch where she met a woman who “…was beautiful, charming and had a wonderful southern tidewater accent.” Mary Maxey loves to add, “She was relentless in my pursuit!” But fate can also be relentless, and in ’93 Mary was given a 30% chance of surviving ovarian cancer. After surgery and debilitating chemo, Mary told Barbara, “If I’m going to die, I do not want to die inside the D.C. Beltway.” Barbara thought long and hard, as she was about to be promoted to a VP position. She eventually arrived at the only decision that made sense: “I want to spend every last minute with you.” The two women purchased an historic “fixer-upper” in Milton as friends and family shrieked, “Are you crazy?!”
By the time they restored the house (later featured in DelawareToday magazine), it became apparent that Mary wasn’t going anywhere. “If I’m not going to die, then I guess I need to get a job!” She returned to restaurant management and sold antiques in her spare time, eventually retiring in early 2011. Barbara took a job with Comcast Cellular 1, which was sold to Cingular Wireless. She also headed up the tourism committee for the Milton Town Council and earned her real estate license—just in time for the proverbial bubble to burst.
The delightful Katie Handy and Gwen Osborne from Sign-A-Rama urged Barbara to check out a job opening at Atlantic Sands Hotel and Conference Center. Within six months she was director of marketing, promoting the oceanfront hotel and its various ventures (none the least of which is the recently opened Cellar Door restaurant in Celebration Mall). The women have since downsized and moved to Lewes, and Barbara tells me, “I always worried that small-town living was everybody knowing your business and you knowing theirs. Well, I have found that to be simply delightful.”
Bob Yesbek is a Rehoboth Beach resident. Email Bob Yesbek