be Missed in Sussex
Sussex County lost a respected leader last weekend, with the death of former Ocean View Town Council President Robert H. Orem. I lost a friend and a mentor.
I met Bob while covering Ocean View Town Council between 1996 and 2000, when he stepped down due to health problems. Bob had been president of the town council for 10 years -- and it was probably one of the more challenging decades in Ocean View's history.
He shepherded the town through a number of challenging issues, including installation of a sewer system and increasing pressures from development just outside the towns' borders. He worked toward bringing public water to the town, an issue that is still unresolved today, much to his chagrin.
Bob was a "big picture" guy. While others around him tended to be busy putting out fires from ever-present daily crises, Bob was always looking down the road. I can recall many conversations with him about the development boom in Sussex County and its effect on his little town. He made it his "bidness," as he would say in his Bawlmer drawl, to help the area prepare for the decisions that would have to come with growth.
Sitting in the cramped town hall office, surrounded by zoning maps and plans from one developer after another, Bob would recite the ever-growing numbers of homes replacing the farms around Ocean View. He worried that the town would become another "cookie cutter" suburb -- just like the ones so many people are moving here to get away from.
Seeing a need to spread the word of the oncoming development train, Bob took his show on the road. I remember a meeting he hosted in the South Coastal Library for the express purpose of giving the folks in the other coastal towns a wake-up call. He wanted to show them the cold, hard facts because he had a sense that they just didn't get it yet. And he was right. Town councils at the beaches talked about Bob's presentation for months, and it did give them a much-needed poke in the ribs.
Since then, the mayors of the coastal towns have become a fixture at meetings regarding issues that they may have previously thought were "inland" topics. Now they see that those issues -- transportation, development and conservation, just to name a few -- have long-range consequences for them.
Even after he left the council, Bob kept up on things that would impact his town. At a summer concert in the Ocean View park, Bob snagged Rep. Shirley Price to talk some more "bidness." This week, the flags in the park flew at half staff in his honor.
Bob was at the helm of Ocean View's town council when the annexation of the Village at Bear Trap Dunes was approved by the smallest of margins. The question at the heart of the annexation -- just how big does Ocean View wanted to be -- turned out to be extremely divisive, and Bob took it to heart. I will never forget standing in the town hall waiting for the referendum results. On one side of the room, Bob sat with fellow council member Doug Tolley. On the other, representatives from Carl M. Freeman Associates, Bear Trap's developer, waited for the tally.
When the total was announced, there was a moment of quiet. Bob leaned over to Doug and said "I don't like how close it was." Within seconds, the Freeman folks were high-fiving and whooping in victory. They had their Ocean View address; Bob's little town had just doubled in size. "And that's just the tip of the iceberg," he used to say. So often, in fact, that it became a bit of a joke between us.
Bob was a native of Baltimore, where he spent 41 years working for Bell Atlantic. There, too, he worked to improve his surroundings as president of the Banner Neighborhood Association, which helped elderly residents with home repairs.
When he moved to Ocean View with his wife Beverly after his retirement, Bob brought with him his strong Lutheran faith. Landing here in the midst of the cradle of Methodism, Bob quickly began to reach out to fellow Lutherans in pursuit of a church home in southeastern Sussex. The result is Community Lutheran Church in Omar, which is now undergoing a major expansion to accommodate its growth -- 125 percent in the past seven years. The small but active congregation first met in Ocean View Presybyterian Church in 1991, and bought the Omar property in 1994.
A copy of the church's charter hangs on a wall in the building (or did, until the wall was removed as part of the construction project.) Bob's signature is naturally the largest of the original members -- it's as if he took a page from John Hancock's book, signing his name so it could be plainly seen by the doubters who thought this area couldn't support a Lutheran Church.
As a member of one of a growing number of young families joining Community Lutheran, I can see that once again, Bob's vision is bearing fruit. And right up to the end, he was looking ahead. At a church committee meeting a couple of months ago, he urged members to pursue purchasing property in the Long Neck area, where a summer mission church has thrived. Land's not getting any cheaper or more plentiful, he said. The time to act is now. Another rib-nudging from Mr. Orem.
At the same meeting, I mentioned I was interested in working on bringing more young families like mine into the church. Next time I saw Bob, the first thing he wanted to know was "What's your plan?" I would have been disappointed if he hadn't asked.
Bob's contributions were recognized by the Sussex County Association of Towns, which gave him its first Community Service award several years ago. County Administrator Robert Stickels, who worked with Bob on many issues, said "I always enjoyed working with him. Stickels said he saw the pride Bob felt in his work in Ocean View, and that "I think he laid the groundwork for the strong financial position Ocean View is in today."
In recent years, Bob's health subdued him physically. But he managed to turn even that into an opportunity for service, serving as president of the Sussex County chapter of the American Heart Association. As someone who had been on the receiving end of a life-saving shock from an automatic external defibrilator, Bob was a proponent of getting them into the hands of first responders in his own town.
After he retired from public service in 2000, Bob had more time to spend in his beloved woodshop -- the garage behind his 200-year-old home crammed with tools and wood. When the woodshop door was open, it meant that Bob was having a good day. When he wasn't, passersby could see him napping in his wing chair by the south-facing window.
I remember talking to Bob about that Sussex County tradition, Return Day. He told me he was going to check it out for the first time, but was not really enthusiastic about the prospect. "I don't like crowds," he said.
Ironically, when Bob's friends and neighbors come to honor him at a Nov. 16 memorial service, that's just what it'll be.
The memorial service for Robert H. Orem will be Saturday, Nov. 16 at 11 a.m. in the Bethany Chapel of Melson Funeral Services. Memorial contributions may be made to the Community Lutheran Church Building Fund, R.R. 4, Box 299, Frankford, DE 19945.
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