Ocean City-- --The men were here to fix the air conditioner, which, it turns out, needed a new thermostat because the cats keep knocking it off the wall. The washer and dryer at the Worcester County Humane Society were also on the fritz - not to mention the animal shelter has a chronic septic issue. The place needs all the help it can get.
And people do help. They donate blankets and beds for the 100-or-so cats and 60-or-so dogs, money for the $800 weekly food bill from Food Lion. They volunteer their time, time and time again. And sometimes, a family asks that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be sent to the struggling yet steadfast animal shelter.
Still, no one here expected the level of donations after the death last year of the wife of a popular radio talk- show host.
Freda Wright-Sorce died in a head-on car crash on Route 90 in Ocean City last July. She was the wife of Michael Sorce, or as he is more widely known, Don Geronimo of the Washington area-based The Don and Mike Show. (It's heard afternoons in Baltimore on 105.7 WHFS-FM). Wright-Sorce was an integral and tempering voice on the duo's irreverent, confessional and often caller-unfriendly comedy show.
Her death stunned the show's loyal listeners, some of whom have since donated an estimated $21,000 to the animal shelter in west Ocean City.
Wright-Sorce's family had requested that rather than spend money on flowers, people could better honor her memory by donating to the humane society. It received hundreds of letters and checks from "about every state of the union," says shelter director Kenille Davies. There were so many letters, the staff volunteered to handle the outpouring for the pained family.
And, as the $5 to $500 checks added up, the shelter found itself with money to spend. Pressing needs could be met.
"We had these old pens. They were terrible," says Davies. "What we did was knock them down."
Today, there are a dozen new, outdoor pens kenneling dogs named Ken, Barbie, Tucker, Amigo, Samantha, Cathy, Ginger, Honey Bear and Shadow. Their concrete-reinforced kennels allow them a daily reprieve from the crowded main building. The dogs, many "senior citizens" and "Eastern Shore Special" mixes, can now spend their days outside in a shaded, chosen spot.
"This is the place Freda built," says shelter volunteer Mary Kay Mullen. "This is her ground."
The dogs announce themselves with a barrage of barking before settling down. To escape the midday heat, many of the dogs hunker down in Dogloos, igloo-shaped doghouses that were bought for the kennels.
Inside the animal shelter, Davies can't always pick up The Don and Mike Show, so she listens on her car radio. Davies doesn't believe she ever met Wright-Sorce at the shelter but, like many listeners, she felt she knew the woman. She also knew there was a family connection to their out-of-the-way shelter near the Ocean City airport.
Wright-Sorce often called into the radio show or rather, her husband would call her to settle (or fuel) a playful argument or to set the record straight on a vacation memory or family issue. In the midst of the show's ribald comedy, Wright-Sorce was "the conscience of the show," as co-host Mike O'Meara said after her death. More than that, she and her husband often just had fun on the air.
She was also an animal lover, listeners could also tell.
Wright-Sorce, who would have turned 51 this month, would talk on the air about the exploits of her family's dogs, Klink, Max and Rudy. In March 2005, after Rudy accidentally was killed, Wright-Sorce wrote about the loss on the show's Web site.
"It's amazing how much you can love a little creature. I had no idea it would hit me so hard," she said. "I felt almost guilty because I cried more than I did over my Dad's death. Of course, my dad had been sick for a long time when he died." Her father, Lester "Les" Wright, died in December 2002.
"In lieu of flowers, donations may be made ... to the Worcester County Humane Society," according to Wright's obituary in the Salisbury newspaper, The Daily Times. Requesting donations to the shelter had been a family tradition since 1997, when Wright-Sorce's sister, Judy Benjamin, lost her husband, Cleo Durham.
"Our family has donated blankets, towels and dog bedding to them. It's our family tradition," says Wright-Sorce's mother, Freda Wright, who is well known as "Big Freda" to listeners of The Don and Mike Show. "My daughter loved animals so much. After she died, the family wondered, 'What would mean the most to her?'" says Wright, 82, of Ocean Pines.
Wright says her daughter was particularly interested in this shelter because it does not euthanize its animals. Ocean City is a frequent pet drop-off area, Davies says, and drop-offs typically outnumber adoptions at the facility. Consequently, space has been an issue at the 17-year-old shelter. (For years, replacement of the facility has been on the city's list of long-term capital improvements.) Now, with the $21,000 in donations, the dogs have plenty of room during the day.
Wright-Sorce had wanted her mother to get a dog, but it just didn't feel like the practical thing to do, her mother remembers telling her last year. On the Sunday afternoon her daughter died, the two had gone to lunch. She dropped her mom off at her home before heading to the vacation home in Ocean City that she and her husband share.
The accident happened on Route 90 and St. Martin Neck Road, when the driver of a Ford Explorer swerved to avoid a line of stopped cars. The Explorer crossed the double yellow line and went straight into the path of Wright-Sorce's Lexus, a recent birthday gift from her husband. (The driver, 22-year-old Jevgenijs Dunajevskis of Ocean Pines, was convicted of negligent driving, according to court records.) Three weeks later, Sorce returned alone to the airwaves and delivered an emotionally wrenching monologue dedicated to his wife, whose voice can still be heard when old episodes of The Don and Mike Show are rerun.
And now, another tribute - a sort of living memorial at an Ocean City humane society where kenneled Eastern Shore Specials now have more shelter.
"You think, 'That's my child who made a difference,'" says Wright-Sorce's mother. "It warms your heart."