Roland E. “Fish” Powell, who had been the popular Democratic mayor of Ocean City for more than a decade during which time the resort transitioned into a year-round community, died Wednesday of cancer at Oyster Harbor, his West Ocean City home.
He was 89.
“Ocean City has been fortunate in having good mayors and ‘Fish’ Powell certainly exemplified that,” said Rick Meehan, current Ocean City mayor. “He was a great friend and mentor, and I learned from him what government was all about and it is about people.”
Mr. Meehan added: “He played a significant role throughout his life in Ocean City as mayor, City Council member and fire chief.”
State Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., who served as Ocean City mayor from 1996 to 2006, acknowledged that Mr. Powell had been a father figure to him.
“My father died when I was 22 and Fish was a dear, dear friend who helped shape my life and my life in public service,” Mr. Mathias said. “He had a cool demeanor and was a very trustworthy and confident person.”
Roland Earl Powell, who was the son of Earl Powell and Minnie Powell, was born in Ocean City.
His mother ran a Dorchester Street boarding house where he was born, and his father was a charter boat captain and farmer in Bishopville, said a daughter, Susan Wenzlaff of Ocean City. “He grew up on Dorchester Street and the docks.”
After graduating from Buckingham High School, he served in the Merchant Marine, which was followed by six years in the Coast Guard.
Mr. Powell told The Sun in a 1985 interview that he had no idea how he got the nickname “Fish,” but said it went back to first grade.
In 1949, he married the former Blanche Dolores Eyer, a schoolteacher. The young couple purchased land on 75th Street, where they built their home and several apartments, which they named Sandswept Cottages, and it was there that they raised their children.
As a young man, Mr. Powell worked as a charter boat captain for Talbot Bunting, sailing the Mar-A-Mor from 1952 until 1962. During winters, after the fishing season had ended, he was a waterfowl guide at the Bob-O-Del Gun Club.
As Ocean City grew, Mr. Powell had a successful real estate career. From 1962 to 1968, he was a licensed salesman for Caine Real Estate, working with Jim Caine and Bob Bounds.
“Ocean City is home. It’s where I grew up, my friends are here, my kids are here, all my roots are here,” he explained in the 1985 Sun interview.
Mr. Powell’s political career began in 1968 when he was elected to the City Council, and again in 1972, when he was chosen council president.
In 1974, he was elected a Worcester County commissioner, and re-elected in 1978 and 1982. For seven years he was chairman of the commission that met in Snow Hill.
“He always had a calling for public service,” Mr. Mathias said.
Mr. Powell explained in The Sun interview that he had a “‘desire to be active in the community, to try to shape Ocean City. And there’s a thrill in running for office. It’s great to see so many people out trying to help you.”
After the sudden death in 1985 of legendary eight-term Mayor Harry W. Kelley, Mr. Powell, in a special election, won against three opponents to become the successor.
After being sworn in, Mr. Powell sought to reassure skeptics.
“I think a lot of tourists and visitors had a feeling of uneasiness,” he told The Sun. “But I am not going to let Ocean City go down the drain.”
“He came on at the right time as there were a lot of changes going on. He was the right leader at this time to address those changes and he did a great job,” Mr. Meehan said. “He was a man who led by example.”
Mr. Powell, who liked riding his bicycle each day to City Hall, which was then located in an old schoolhouse, enjoyed telling people he had to let himself in the back entrance because he didn’t have a front-door key.
“Everyone came to love Fish Powell. He knew how to be kind,” said Mr. Mathias, who represents Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties. “The Eastern Shore certainly loved Fish, and they loved him in Annapolis because of his zillion-dollar smile and friendly nature. And they could trust him.”
Said Mr. Meehan: “Fish was outgoing and had a laid-back appeal.”
One of Mr. Powell’s lasting achievements was the resort’s beach replenishment program.
“That’s a 50-year deal and he put that together with the local, federal and state governments,” he said. “He negotiated that deal with Senators [Paul] Sarbanes, [Barbara] Mikulski, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Roy Dyson. And the beach-replenishment program has done exactly what it was supposed to do.”
“This may be one of his greatest achievements,” Mr. Meehan said. “He also had a great sense of humor, but if need be, could stand his ground.”
In addition to the beach-replenishment program, other major accomplishments of the Powell years were the $30 million expansion of the convention hall that now bears his name; traffic-control improvements along Coastal Highway; new water-pumping and garbage transfer stations; and a new District Court and public safety building.
“But Mr. Powell was smart enough not to pick fights with other levels of government and kept his eye on the prize: the care and feeding of the town’s tourist economy,” The Sun observed in a 1996 editorial, as his term was ending.
Mr. Powell fought against the introduction of the Keno numbers game in bars and restaurants. He objected to shops that sold obscene T-shirts and worked tirelessly to maintain the resort’s family-friendly image. He waged wars against underage drinking, alcohol-related offenses and rowdyism.
On Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted that Mr. Powell had transformed Ocean City into a world-class resort.
Mr. Powell had been a member of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Co. for 65 years and served as chief for nine years at various times, and in recognition of his long service as a volunteer firefighter, he was Gold Badge Member No. 74.
He was a member and past president of the Marlin Fishing Club, a member of the American Legion, a Mason and a member of Evergreen Lodge No. 153.
“He clearly is — was — the patriarch of Ocean City,” Mr. Mathias told The (Salisbury) Daily Times.
If Mr. Powell had a weakness — it was for Ocean City’s famed Fisher’s Popcorn.
His hobbies were taking 2-mile walks on the boardwalk and fishing.
A celebration of Mr. Powell’s life will be held on what would have been his 90th birthday at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Powell is survived by his wife of 31 years, the former Jeannie Evans; two sons, Jimmy Powell and Billy Powell, both of Ocean City; another daughter, Kim Mourlas of Selbyville, Del.; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. His first wife died in 1982.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.