Thelma Conner's tea time is an afternoon repast Ocean City visitors enjoy


June 12, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Correspondent

Ocean City Come 3:30 every afternoon, Thelma Conner, a spry, white-haired woman, steps away from her executive duties to pour tea.

The venerable 79-year-old, who owns the Dunes Manor Hotel on 28th Street, takes her place next to a silver service set in the hotel's Victorian-style lobby and hands each guest a cup of hot tea -- served in real china, of course.

It's tea time in Ocean City.

For an hour each and every afternoon, the hotel's lobby is filled with guests sipping complimentary tea, nibbling crumpets and cookies and exchanging small talk.

Hotel guests John and Orene Fox of Sykesville, and others have come to tea to steal away from the resort's sometimes frenetic pace -- away from crowded beaches, the carnival-like boardwalk.

"We enjoy this time in Ocean City," said Mrs. Fox, who arrived on a recent afternoon in time for tea. "It's quiet time. Most people don't take the time for that."

Indeed. A stone's throw away from the ocean-front hotel, the Coastal Highway is a river awash with jeeps and cars, many marking high school graduation with "seniors rule" signs painted on hoods and doors.

PTC Airplanes buzz overhead, trailing advertisements for free pizza delivery, happy hours and bikini contests.

That's the Ocean City familiar to many Marylanders. Mrs. Conner's tea time is a much more genteel affair, perhaps less like Ocean City and more like the comparatively tranquil Assateague Island National Park Seashore nearby.

Mrs. Conner's tea time is a retreat from the mayhem, but also a chance for new friendships.

"There are a lot of lonely people in this world," said Mrs. Conner, explaining the reason behind the 5-year-old tea tradition. "I thought if my guests came down to the lobby and had tea, they might find other people to talk to.

"I've seen couples meet here and go off to dinner together," she added.

Mrs. Conner readily admits tea time is a borrowed idea, one she came upon during a visit to the exclusive Greenbriar resort in West Virginia several years ago.

"Everybody was in the lobby at tea time," she recalled. "It's what I wanted here. I decided before I built [this hotel in 1987] that I would serve tea every afternoon like they did."

Tea is not limited to hotel guests. The public is welcome, too, though Mrs. Conner said she frowns on bathing suits and bare feet. The tea and refreshments are free," she added, and will be "as long as I'm here serving."

In the busy summer months "you can almost see the beach clear at 3:30," said Danny Williams, dining room manager, while serving crumpets (from a gourmet shop outside the area) and store-bought cookies on china plates.

Lines often snake through the lobby, and it's not unusual for the staff to serve 100 plastic cups of iced tea and 60 cups of hot tea during the hour in July and August, he said.

On a recent visit, several dozen people dropped in for the mid-afternoon repast.

"Word has kind of spread around that there's tea time here," Mrs. Conner said. "Some are surprised to find it here but as soon as they catch on, they're down here."

Mrs. Conner seldom misses an afternoon tea. On Sundays, she occasionally skips out to finish work next door at the Dunes Motel which she also owns.

The former Ocean City councilwoman's presence at the beginning of the tea line, though, is something relished by her guests.

"She's a very gracious lady," said Sandy Fulton, the hotel's personnel director. "She's always surprised that people want to meet her."

Yolanda Tagg, a real estate agent from Hagerstown, happily recalled spending nearly an hour one afternoon with Mrs. Conner during a not-so-busy tea time a few seasons ago.

"I didn't think it would mean anything to anyone -- just some old woman serving tea," Mrs. Conner said. "I've been surprised."

For Ms. Tagg, who visits the hotel regularly, tea time "is great.

"I so seldom get to London," she said, laughing. "And tea always tastes better out of good china."

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