A time to grieve: Cheswold, Dewey mourn loss of mayors

Dewey Beach Mayor John “TJ” Redefer was involved in the real estate business and had a passion for flying drones and taking photos of the Dewey area. Mayor Redefer passed away on Tuesday at age 58 after serving as Dewey’s mayor for two-and-a-half years.(Submitted photo)

DOVER — The towns of Cheswold and Dewey Beach couldn’t be any more different, with one being in a mostly rural portion of northern Kent County with a railroad track going through the middle of it and the other being in tourism-heavy Sussex County, right at the break of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

However, both towns have been left reeling after the deaths of their mayors almost one month apart while in office.

Cheswold Mayor Robert “Bob” Sine (left) is shown receiving a certificate from the Cheswold Police Department. Mayor Sine died on March 4 at age 71 after serving as Cheswold’s mayor for six years. (Submitted photo)

Cheswold Mayor Robert (Bob) Sine passed away on March 4 at the age of 71, while Dewey Beach Mayor John “TJ” Redefer III succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Tuesday at age 58, leaving a void among not only their families and friends, but also in their respective towns.

Their town councils will have to carry on without their leadership, even amid the new coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Sine served as the Mayor of Cheswold for six years. Meanwhile, Mr. Redefer served as mayor of Dewey Beach since 2017, when he was first elected to the board of commissioners.

Both men appeared to be guided by similar principles — their love of their towns and their desire to make them the best they could be.

“Although I cannot over-emphasize how much Mayor Sine is missed and how valuable his knowledge was to the town, it’s the town council that makes the decisions for and about the town,” said Sam Callender, Cheswold’s town administrator. “So, we will press on as we always have.

“Bob was a personal mentor to me and a friend, so I can’t adequately quantify how much he’ll be missed. He was a member of what I call the ‘old guard,’ and supported the growth and change in Cheswold through his history and knowledge of the town. He served the town for approximately 15 years and accepted only our thanks for his sacrifices.”

The loss of Mayor Redefer in Dewey Beach, about 50 miles south of Cheswold, has also been a painful blow to a town that has long prided itself as “a way of life.” He was well-known as a drone enthusiast, often taking pictures of his beloved town from high above.

“TJ was a great mayor and friend,” said Dale Cooke, one of Dewey Beach’s town commissioners. “We started off as political adversaries; but I came to know him as a true proponent and defender of what it means to be part of the Dewey Beach ‘way of life.’ His talent was standing up for all the town stakeholders, even when those very same stakeholders were in the middle of a protracted political battle.

“As part of both the Dewey homeowners and the business owners, he always attempted to bring those often-times divergent sides together for the betterment of the town. He did a wonderful job as mayor and was well-respected both in town and statewide in the business and political communities. To me, personally, I honestly felt TJ was a true gentleman and an all-around ‘nice guy.’”

Neither mayor is expected to be officially replaced in the near future.

That’s because Cheswold’s town charter does not require it to hold an election for mayor, who is selected by a majority vote of the town council after the city’s municipal election.

Mr. Callender said the town’s election was canceled in February since there were insufficient candidates to require an election, so the existing town council now makes up the governing body.

Larence Kirby, Cheswold’s vice mayor, is the acting mayor of the town.

“As for moving forward, our town’s government structure is in a holding pattern due to the COVID-19 crisis,” Mr. Kirby said. “As the acting mayor, I am working with our employees, town council and police to ensure our citizens adhere to the governor’s safety orders. The health and safety of our citizens outweighs any movement to assess our town’s government structure.”

As for Dewey Beach, its town charter states, “In the case of a vacancy created in any office of Commissioner of Dewey Beach or in the office of Commissioner of Dewey Beach having the title of Mayor of the Town of Dewey Beach. either by death, resignation, loss of residence or freeholdership, in the Town of Dewey Beach, or other disqualifying event, or otherwise, the Commissioners of Dewey Beach shall fill such vacancy for the residue of the whole term.”

Dewey commissioners re-elected Mayor Redefer for a third one-year term as mayor at its town council’s yearly organizational meeting Oct. 2, 2019. The town’s next municipal election is scheduled for Sept. 26.

For now, the communities of both towns are taking the time to grieve their former city leaders.

“TJ has always been the heart and soul of his community,” Attorney General Kathy Jennings said. “From the moment I met TJ Redefer, I knew what a sincere and genuine person he was. A family-man, TJ cared deeply for the people he served and the town he loved — Dewey Beach. He will be missed by me and anyone who was lucky enough to know him.”

Gov. John Carney also reached out to the Redefer family and Dewey Beach after hearing of Mr. Redefer’s passing earlier this week.

“I got to know TJ well over my three decades in government service, and he was always a family-man first,” the governor said. “Everyone who knew TJ would also tell you how much he loved Dewey Beach. He understood the impact of Delaware’s beach communities on our way-of-life as Delawareans, and our economy. TJ was always fun to be around, and a friend to so many across our state.”

Mr. Kirby said the type of leadership that both Cheswold and Dewey Beach have recently lost will be difficult to replace.

“Mayor Sine brought a wealth of knowledge about Cheswold and the citizens who make it vibrant,” said Mr. Kirby. “When we made decisions about the town, he always considered how the decisions would impact our citizens. This is evident from our heritage-day, clean-up day and events that brought citizens together.

“In addition, as a veteran, he understood the importance of acknowledging those who served, like our veterans and our police force. Regarding our police, one of the last things he influenced was the securing of cameras within the town to protect our citizens and improve our police response times. Overall, his knowledge, concern and humor are the factors that will be hard to replace.”

Maybe Cheswold and Dewey Beach have more in common than one would think — committed town leaders who have recently left an unmistakable void that will be difficult to fill.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.