In 1955, Eddie Kelly helped beautify the ocean block of Virginia Ave.
You know that 800 number on the back of your credit card? Many people think of that as a black hole where disembodied voices do their best to not answer your questions. But, at least in the case of American Express, that’s not true. In fact, that company’s call center is well known for its genuine concern and willingness to resolve customers’ requests. As with anything service related, it all comes down to training, and one of the prime movers behind that training is none other than Eddie Kelly. And if there’s anything Eddie loves more than his job, it’s his time here by the Atlantic Ocean.
As with many of us, that time started a long time ago. Even as a young child, Eddie loved Rehoboth because, in his words, “it wasn’t Ocean City.” He has clear memories of evening strolls through the pines with his parents, and in lieu of TV reception (there was none), enjoying the displays at the Rehoboth Art League. One of his clearest memories is eating at the Robert Lee Restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue (now the Robin Hood).
Eddie was one of six siblings in Baltimore, Md. Summer-long stays at the beach were an annual event, and most of the kids worked to help pay the $500 seasonal rental on the beach cottage (you’ll pay that now just for parking). In 1962, Eddie plunged into the world of retail, selling tomatoes at Olive Avenue and the Boardwalk—2 for 5 cents. Want salt? One cent, please. Interestingly, one of our long-time locals, Chip Hearn, had a similar start hawking Italian ice. Chip and his family went on to buy the Country Squire restaurant (where Semra’s Mediterranean Grill is now) and eventually the Starboard in Dewey. The Hearn’s legendary DIY Bloody Mary bar eventually morphed into Peppers, one of the largest online sources for hot sauces.
After his taste of the world of produce, Eddie Kelly landed a job at the original Henlopen Hotel as the night houseboy; pinch-hitting on the switchboard and at the elevator controls. He was pulling down $1.25/hour. By now it was around 1970, and he was working at Alvin and Helen Simpler’s Avenue Restaurant (it occupied what is now a row of stores adjacent to the Avenue Inn entrance on Rehoboth Avenue). His 5:30 a.m. to noon shift brought him into contact with the busy eatery’s chief cook, known only as “Sarge.” Wednesdays were the highlight of the week as a car full of pie bakin’ ladies arrived to create the Avenue’s legendary desserts. Eddie attributes his love of cooking to these people and especially to The Avenue’s seafood specialist, Miss Hattie, who educated the young kitchen helper on the vagaries of seasoning steamed shrimp, lobster and the like.
As Eddie got older, he worked for the late Ross Alexander’s iconic gift shop, Joss. Alexander taught Kelly the basics of retail and customer service. One of the values-added at Joss was that every item purchased was gift wrapped. It didn’t matter how much the customer paid for it, but every purchase had to “be an event.” Eddie carried that philosophy to Baltimore’s now long-gone family-owned department stores, Hochschild Kohn, Bamber-ger’s and Hutzler’s. Employers could sense that his retail philosophy was sincere, and he spent 12 years as the corporate trainer for Value City department stores.
It was the mid-‘70s, and every self-respecting local gay boy made it his business to frequent the Boathouse in Dewey Beach and the storied Nomad Village south of the Indian River Inlet. It was 36 years ago when he met the love of his life, Bobby. In the mid-‘80s they bought a house in Bethany Beach, and seven years ago they realized how much money they could save—just in gas—if they moved northward. When they’re not in Baltimore they spend every minute of their time here in Rehoboth.
The American Express call center I referred to earlier is in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., southwest of Gettysburg in the central part of the state. For the last five years, Eddie’s been commuting there every other week to train customer service operators in the finer points of satisfying customers’ needs.
In Rehoboth, he worked as a docent for the Rehoboth Beach Museum, but now feels even more fulfilled in the kitchen at Epworth UMC feeding the needy on Sunday afternoons. “I draw on everything I learned from Sarge, the pie ladies, and Miss Hattie to do the best I can,” he smiles. “I’m proud of everyone at Epworth. Of all of my jobs, this is one of my favorites.” The smiling and always helpful Eddie Kelly can also be found assisting customers at Sea Finds and Beach Party in Penny Lane.
When I ask him when he hopes to live full-time here in Rehoboth, he pauses. “I think I already do…but I’m not sure…I can tell you that all of our plans and decisions are based on the ultimate goal of living here forever.” I found that to be the perfect answer.