Tea is a sip of civility at the brash beach

May 09, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

Ocean City -- "It's our special tea -- taste it. Now you need cookies and crumpets."

Mrs. Thelma Conner, the 81-year-old grande dame of the Dunes Manor Hotel, has just welcomed another visitor to afternoon tea.

Seated regally behind an oversized silver samovar, Mrs. Conner dispenses Darjeeling tea and genteel repartee every afternoon except Sunday at the Dunes Manor, the pink-and-cream Victorian hotel she built in 1987.

And the civilized ritual -- an unexpected delight in a resort usually associated with boogie boards and Boardwalk fries -- is popular with visitors.

On a recent spring day, Mrs. Conner reminisced as she kept a steady stream of the hotel's special spiced Darjeeling flowing into flowered china teacups.

"I came here as a bride in 1940," Mrs. Conner said. "My husband and his mother had a hotel on the Boardwalk. Then we bought a motel, and we added on to it. . . . My husband had always planned this. Unfortunately, he died in 1979. It took me a while to get up the courage to do this by myself."

Indeed. Few women (or men, for that matter) in their mid-70s would undertake to build and manage an 11-story, 170-room hotel.

But Mrs. Conner, a San Antonio native whose soft speech still carries the gentle twang of her Texas roots, is not like everyone else.

"She works a lot -- I don't know how she does it," says Vince D'Onofrio, dining room manager at the Dunes. "She runs the whole show. She works constantly."

And when she's not there, she's missed, says Vicki Morris, the hotel's general manager.

"If something happens and she's not here, I have to tell everyone where she is. If it's a shopping trip with the girls, the next day it's, 'How was your shopping trip?' " says Ms. Morris.

The passer-by can tell if Mrs. Conner is in, because just recently the staff insisted that she accept a designated parking space at the hotel. Her car's license plate is "DUNES," so if she's not there, anyone would know, Ms. Morris says.

Mrs. Conner, meanwhile, is coaxing another coffee drinker to try her tea.

"Oh, come on, have a cup of tea," she says to the man who has asked for coffee. "You'll like this. You get a cookie to go with it!"

He does, and says with surprise that it's not too bad -- and Mrs. Conner laughs and pours out a cup for another guest.

On this day, she is wearing a floral skirt, a navy jacket and a silver teapot pin on her lapel. "It's the Order of The Silver Teapot," she says proudly. "I started it!"

Her daughter sent her the pin, and Mrs. Conner ordered more like it for her female staff. Her mission now: "I've been trying to find a tie tack for the boys . . . the boys don't want to wear this," she says, nodding down at her silver brooch.

It's hard to believe she hasn't talked them into it -- her gentle charm is immediately apparent, and her staff speaks of her in affectionate tones, with a little awe at her stamina and determination peeking through.

And Mrs. Conner obviously draws great pleasure from her work.

Looking across the lobby at the twenty-some people gathered to sip her tea and nibble her crumpets -- grandparents, parents, children, all in varying styles of informal attire -- she smiles with satisfaction.

"I'm very pleased with the way it turned out," says the woman who built a hotel complete with daily tea, all by herself.

"It's pretty much the way I planned it."

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