Former commissioner, business leader, ‘Sonny’ Schulz dies at 85
CHESTER — Business leader and former County Commissioner Oscar A. “Sonny” Schulz, 85, died at home in Chester on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018.
Schulz was a prominent Maryland businessman, the patriarch of the Fisherman’s Inn restaurant family, a longtime regional civic leader, the proud dad of three sons and a granddad to seven.
He was owner of the very successful Fisherman’s Inn Restaurant, Fisherman’s Crab Deck, and Fisherman’s Seafood with his late wife Betty Thomas Schulz, and their three sons, Andy, Jody and Tracy. Many people around the county shared memories of Sonny, and repeatedly referred to him and his late wife Betty, “as people who truly cared about their community.”
Schulz was good at business and at politics, generous and always looked out for those in his care — whether family members, employees or constituents — friends said. As a commissioner, he prided himself on always returning phone calls, even if it took late into the evening.
Jim Barton, who recently retired as head of the county’s zoning
office, said, “I first met Sonny when he was serving as county commissioner 30 years ago. I had just been hired by the county. Over the years, he and I would have lunch together twice a week at restaurants around the county. We became very good friends. I consider it an honor to have known Sonny Schulz. He’s the kind of man you want to write about.
“Sonny is one of the most giving people I’ve ever known. I like his honesty, too. He’d always tell you what he thought about things. And if you gave him grief, he give it right back to you, full blast!”
Barton added, “I think Sonny’s one of the best known people in all of Queen Anne’s County. He was a true Kent Islander, and there’s not many of those left. I think he was a visionar y, thinking about things to help the county before others did. I know he and I always had a good time. He always had a smile on his face. Of his life, I’d say, it’s been a good ride. One of the last times I saw him, I told him, ‘You never learned to whisper.’ He laughed, because when he spoke, you never had trouble hearing him.”
Former Delegate and County Commissioner Wheeler Baker said, “Sonny was the type of guy who cared deeply about the community. Even with all the success he had in business, he never let that go to his head.”
Baker added, “Sonny used to joke about his son Tracy serving as fire chief at the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department. Sonny would say, ‘Tracy’s out there running to all these calls for fire service while he’s still on the clock at the restaurant.’ Jokingly, Sonny made reference to Tracy being the first paid professional firefighter in Queen Anne’s County, since he was getting paid at the restaurant to provide that service.”
Former manager at Queenstown Bank, Frankie Smith said, “I’ve known Sonny for more than 60 years. I have a lot of respect for him. He was very good in business.”
Smith also spoke of Schulz’s generosity, “Many people don’t know this, but Sonny paid for a complete, state-of-the-art kitchen to be put in at Chesapeake College to help students there learn culinary arts as a profession. That was done without any fanfare or credit to Sonny. He did things like that without wanting more than to know he helped the community.”
Another example of Schulz’s generosity mentioned was when the new Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department opened. The weekend it opened, the community was invited to visit, and Fisherman’s Inn provided all the food (shrimp and dumplings with all the trimmings) for free.
Asked about his generosity, Schulz responded quickly and without hesitation, saying, “The community has always given to me!”
Mary Lee Brown, manager at Fisherman’s Crab Deck for the past 27 years, said she has worked with the Schulz family for 45 years total — when she was 19, she was asked to babysit the Schulz boys — and has many fond memories.
Brown said, “Sonny would give people the impression of being gruff, but he had a heart of gold. One day when he was county commissioner, he heard some of us girls on the wait staff at Fisherman’s talking among ourselves about a portion of the road leading into Marling Farms, where many of us lived, being bad to travel on during icy, winter months. Mind you, we weren’t talking to him about this, but the next day, the road was treated to make it safer to travel on. It must have been Sonny that had it taken care of. That’s the way he was, always trying to see that things were taken care of.”
Rebecca Mobley has been an assistant manager at Fisherman’s Inn the past nine years. She shared her personal insight into who Sonny Schulz was, saying, “He was an excellent story teller. In the years I knew him, you could count on him like clockwork to be in booth number 14 for lunch and dinner, always facing the entrance door. If he was away, he’d call in the morning and again in the evening to check on business.
“Fisherman’s Inn is a true family restaurant in every sense of the meaning: his sons being hands-on. The staff is so close-knit that they refer to each other as their ‘Fishy Family.’ I attribute this family culture to the groundwork laid by both Betty and Sonny. The restaurant is an anomaly in regards to employee tenure having staff members who have been there for decades with a few 40 years of dedicated service. It’s unheard of and speaks volumes to the way the Schulz family collectively does business.”
She also recalled, “Sonny was in a barbershop quartet in his younger days and when he was in a really good mood you could catch him singing out loud in the office.”
Oscar “Sonny” Schulz was born on Kent Island on June 25, 1933. His parents, Oscar and Maude, had two children before Sonny. A sister, Charlotta, died at the age of 4 after eating a peach poisoned by an arsenic spray. Brother John was much older than Sonny. He died at age 50. Sonny’s father was an oysterman and a carpenter who struggled with his health. In World War I he’d survived a mustard gas attack, the long term effects of which were progressively debilitating. Sonny was 11 when his father died.
Schulz was always ambitious. “I’ll never forget the first day I made five dollars,” he once said. “Billy Schulz, my cousin, had a bicycle he was going to sell because he bought a car. He wanted five dollars for it. So Mother said whatever I made that day I could put toward the bicycle. I picked a hundred bushels of tomatoes. Made five dollars.”
By the time he was 12, Schulz was culling oysters out on the Chesapeake Bay and was being mentored by some of the best, and toughest, watermen in the business.
He told the story: “I fell overboard once when I was about 15 years old. I was working down Eastern Bay with Teeny (Jones) and Robert (Horney). It was cold and there was ice all around. I was up on the bow washing the boat and getting ready to go home. That (cleaning) water froze and I slipped. It’s a damn good thing I came up next to the boat because those two were laughing so hard they wouldn’t even help me. We had a few oysters, and the boat was low, so I was able to climb back in. I went in the cabin, there was this little old stove, and everything I had was wet – long drawers, boots, two or three pair of socks, two pairs of pants, and I didn’t know it until I got home, but backing up so close to that little cabin stove, I’d burned my tail.
“Teeny had an old World War I overcoat and that’s what I wore while we unloaded. He wouldn’t let me go home until we’d unloaded.”
An entrepreneur from the beginning, Schulz said, “I bought my first boat in high school. I didn’t have any money — I needed a boat because I wanted to go oystering. I’d been working, culling, for Teeny and Robert. I went to a Mr. Marshall down to Wittman (in Talbot County) and had a boat built. She was 34’ long and with the motor it cost me $1,800. I had a little money and went down to (Kent Island’s) Mr. Roy Golt to borrow the rest of it. At 2 percent interest, I paid him back by Christmas. He said, ‘Sonny, you better keep this money you might need it. Winter’s coming.’ I said ‘if I do, I’ll come back and ask you for it again.’”
He graduated from Stevensville High School in 1951. From 1953-1955, Schulz served in the U.S. Army, earning the rank of sergeant in the 25th Infantry unit serving in Korea.
“About six months ago we went down to Washington, D.C.,” Barton said. “He wanted to see some of the military memorials that have been built that he’d only seen pictures of. We saw the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial. We had a wheelchair for him to use so he could look at them close up.
“While at the Korean War Memorial, there was a Korean family together with their children there. The funniest thing happened. While stationed in Korea, Sonny had played Santa for Korean children in a village, and Santa arrived by helicopter. While talking to the family, they introduced their grandparents to Sonny, and the grandparents told Sonny their fondest memories of Americans was bringing Santa to visit them in a helicopter! Sonny replied, ‘That was me!’ Sonny invited them to come out to Fisherman’s Inn, and he’d feed them, if they had time. I don’t know if that family ever came.”
Upon returning from Korea, Schulz started his own charter fishing boat service. He married Betty in 1956. He worked as a waterman for many years leading up to the construction of the “new” Fisherman’s Inn Restaurant that replaced the original roadside diner started by Betty’s family during the mid-1930s.
The “new” Fisherman’s Inn opened the Monday after Mother’s Day 1971. It burned down Dec. 22, 1980.
Schulz said that was a bad Christmas.
“We left here a little after 10,” he said. “When the alarm went off around midnight, we came back down. It was so cold the (fire department’s) ladder truck froze. When they made a hole in the roof, the windows exploded. A week later we had to burn it down again to finish the job. We hauled out 90 truckloads of debris.”
In an interview with Betty Schulz 10 years ago when her “Fisherman’s Inn Cook Book” was released, she said, “When the restaurant burned down, I thought we were finished. Not Sonny. He told me we would rebuild, and he did it. I credit him completely for rebuilding the restaurant.”
Bobby Ann Nash, who was a waitress at Fisherman’s Inn for 20 years, said, “Sonny and Betty had all of us who worked at the restaurant come for a meeting after the fire. I could see it in his face, Sonny was so concerned about his employees, what was going to happen to us? He and Betty kept us on salary until the restaurant was re-opened. He and Betty treated us all like family — no, we were family. That was clear.”
Reconstruction started the first of February 1981, and Fisherman’s Inn reopened July 28, 1981, a little more than six months after the fire. That building was renovated and expanded in the early 1990s.
Before the fire, Nash founded what became Chesterwye Center for adults with developmental disabilities. Sonny and Betty Schulz were right there from the beginning providing support for Chesterwye, she said. And in all the years that have followed, Fisherman’s Inn still hosts a huge annual Christmas dinner at the restaurant for those who receive services at Chesterwye.
Local politics beckoned in the late 1970s and early ’80s when Stevensville merchant and civic booster Julius Grollman encouraged Kent Islanders to get more involved with their government. Power was historically based up-county, in Centreville and Sudlersville.
“Little people didn’t have much of a chance of getting involved,” Schulz said. But the Bay Bridge changed things. More people were settling on Kent Island, supporting businesses and increasing the tax base.
Established area leadership resisted the young Kent Island upstarts and wouldn’t allow them on the party ticket. “So we started a new ticket. Got enough signatures on a petition to get on the general election. Next year the state legislature passed a bill you couldn’t do that anymore.”
“None of us got elected,” he continued. “But later, next four years, Jules got elected. I was treasurer for eight years and county commissioner for eight years.”
Schulz remembered a
Kent Island that provided “a free life.” A Kent Island of vegetable gardens and soft crabs and hen houses. A place where young men shot marbles and wore old hand-me down Pittsburgh Pirates baseball uniforms – “I could wrap it around me three times.” Where locals would spend pretty Sundays on the hill at Matapeake watching the ferries come and go, observing people, and looking for faraway license plates.
“Cars would back up from Matapeake to Bill Denny’s (in Stevensville). That’s how the firehouse got started, selling sandwiches and soda to people down there,” he said.
This past April, Schulz participated in the Watermen’s Story Swap at the VFW in Grasonville. He said, “I grew up at Kent Narrows. Today it’s nothing like it was years ago. Kent Narrows was the most amazing place to grow up. At one time, there were at least 12 seafood packing houses there — today there’s only one left. People working in those packing houses lived in little shanty houses along the shoreline. As many as 1,000 people lived in those shanties. 150 boats went in and out of the Narrows daily. It was another era altogether.”
Talking to Schulz could always help those who never lived then and there to imagine what that Kent Island, the Eastern Shore, was like.
He was a community leader. He was a past president and board member of the Maryland Restaurant Association, and the past president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association. He was a founding member of the Queen Anne’s County Chamber of Commerce. He was instrumental in starting the county’s first tourist board and has won awards for his successes in economic development. He was a family man with a big heart and generous spirit.
“It is clear that Sonny is very proud of his sons and grandchildren,” Barton said. “To me, his boys are just like Sonny — they care about their community, and you can see it with their continued involvement helping others.”
A complete obituary appears on page 17.
Oscar “Sonny” Schulz attends the 50th anniversary celebration of Chesterwye on April 1, 2017.
Oscar A. “Sonny” Schulz, local business leader and former county commissioner, enjoys the atmosphere at Casino Night.
From the left, Kent Narrows Development Foundation Board member Joe Pomerantz, local historian Nick Hoxter, former Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Oscar “Sonny” Schulz and Maryland Department of Transportation Commission member Elmer Horsey hold the sign proclaiming the Kent Narrows drawbridge the Watermen’s Memorial Bridge in July 2011. Behind them, the drawbridge is pictured open.
Queen Anne’s County Chamber of Commerce Chairman Jesse Parks, right, presents Oscar “Sonny” Schulz with the Chamber’s first ever Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Schulz was given the award for being one of the Chamber’s founding members.
Oscar “Sonny” Schulz, left, is recognized for his longtime support of the Grasonville Community Center by former Community Center President Jim Brown during the evening honoring Capt. Warren Butler.