For­mer com­mis­sioner, busi­ness leader, ‘Sonny’ Schulz dies at 85

The Kent Island Bay Times - - Front Page - By DOUG BISHOP & BRENT LEWIS Spe­cial to the Bay Times

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.

PHOTO BY DOUG BISHOP

Os­car “Sonny” Schulz at­tends the 50th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of Ch­ester­wye on April 1, 2017.

PHOTO BY AN­GELA PRICE

Os­car A. “Sonny” Schulz, lo­cal busi­ness leader and for­mer county com­mis­sioner, en­joys the at­mos­phere at Casino Night.

PHOTO BY DOUG BISHOP

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.

PHOTO BY DAN BALD­WIN

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.

PHOTO BY DOUG BISHOP

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.

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