Hugh T. Cropper Jr., 88, Ocean City mayor in 1960s

August 08, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Hugh T. Cropper Jr., a former Ocean City mayor and councilman who helped lead Ocean City's growth from a small resort village to Maryland's beachside mecca, died Thursday of heart failure at Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin. He was 88.

"If there's one person in my lifetime who I would call `Mr. Ocean City,' he was it," said Roland "Fish" Powell, a longtime confidant who served as mayor from 1985 to 1996. "He was my idol when I was a boy, and he remained very active until his final days."

The son of a successful Eastern Shore poultry farmer, Hugh Thomas Cropper Sr., he developed an interest in politics at an early age, according to his daughter Carole Smith, because he loved the town and had a natural proclivity for civic work.

A tanned, burly, pipe-chomping man, Mr. Cropper made a striking figure around town, often wearing a light-blue suit and white shoes. In 1948, he was elected to the City Council, running on a platform to "see that teen-age rowdyism is broken up," according to a newspaper article from the time.

He quickly became involved in the city's civic clubs and organizations, many of which he continued to serve through his lifetime. He had been a member of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Department for 69 years and continued to show up at meetings and occasionally at significant fires until recent years, according to firefighters.

After serving as president of the City Council for more than a decade, Mr. Cropper was elected mayor in 1959, beginning a 10-year commitment that saw some of the most significant challenges in the city's history: youth riots, the devastating storm of 1962, the struggle to establish zoning laws, and a series of annexations that greatly extended the little town's borders from 15th Street to the Delaware line.

He developed a reputation for managing crises with a spirit of optimism and aplomb. After the brutal spring storm in 1962 that ravaged the boardwalk, flooded the town and threatened to ruin the summer tourist season, Mr. Cropper tapped his statewide political connections to bring the city back to health by summertime and declared to townspeople: "Some of the biggest boom years lie ahead."

"You need confidence in this job," said Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias, who often met with Mr. Cropper. "You need people to tell you the truth and you need people sometimes to tell you you're doing a good job. That was Hugh T.

"Once he just told me, `Every now and then, you've just got to take your fist and pound it on the desk and say, `I am the mayor!' " He was fundamental to this town."

"He was very, very proud of how the city developed," said his stepson, Reggie Bell of Berlin. "He was pleased that the town had maintained a good image as a family resort."

A graduate of Ocean City public schools and Goldey Beacom College in Wilmington, Del., he took a particular interest in running local motels. He was, at different times, the owner of the Benson Hotel (now the Wellington) and Misty Harbor motel, which eventually was taken over by his son.

But his great love was politics, which led him to serve on numerous boards and committees over the years.

He was president of the L. Franklin Purnell Foundation, a nonprofit community service organization; former president of the Ocean City Lions Club; a member of the Chamber of Commerce; charter director of the Blood Bank of the Eastern Shore; a longtime member and chairman of Worcester County's Democratic State Central Committee; chairman of the board of the Bank of Ocean City for 47 years; and an active leader in the Ocean City Presbyterian Church.

His first wife, the former Mildred Baker, died in 1971.

In addition to his stepson, he is survived by his wife of 27 years, the former Naomi Bunting; two daughters, Virginia Cropper Denayer of Salisbury and Carole Cropper Smith of Berlin; a son, Hugh T. Cropper III of Ocean City; seven grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. today at First Presbyterian Church of Ocean City.

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