By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
When Mike Stafford first came to Sea Isle City as a child in the 1930s, some of the visitors were still arriving on the island by horse and carriage.
“Sea Isle back then was like Strathmere is today,” Stafford recalled in a 2016 interview of the beach town’s pre-building-boom days.
During his 90-year life, Stafford witnessed some of Sea Isle’s epic events, including the monstrous 1944 hurricane and the devastating 1962 storm that obliterated large swaths of the seashore.
He chronicled Sea Isle’s history in six books and also helped to bring history to the public’s attention by serving as president of the Sea Isle City Historical Society & Museum for 25 years.
Family members and friends are mourning Stafford’s death on Dec. 2, but they say his legacy will live on through his contributions to the museum.
“He had a passion. It was his livelihood. He was at the museum every day,” said Mike McHale, who succeeded Stafford as the museum’s president.
McHale, a former Sea Isle mayor who now serves as a museum trustee, stressed that Stafford always had a strong partner, his late wife, Marie.
“He was the nucleus of the museum, he and his wife, Marie, no doubt about that,” McHale said. “A lot of the stuff that’s there today was the result of Mike Stafford and his wife. Most of it, really.”
Abby Powell, the museum’s current president, called Stafford and his wife “a team.”
“He and Marie did so much to start the museum,” Powell said. “I feel in their hearts, history mattered.”
Their enthusiasm for Sea Isle’s history spread to the museum’s volunteers, Powell added.
“Mostly, he really wanted to preserve and share the history of Sea Isle. All of the volunteers at the museum felt the same way because of him,” Powell said of Stafford.
Powell called Stafford probably the kindest person she has ever met in Sea Isle. She also said he was a “Renaissance man.”
“He was kind to everyone,” she said.
In a 2016 interview with SeaIsleNews.com, Stafford said his family began spending summers in Sea Isle in 1917, while World War I was still raging. Stafford was born in 1929 at Sea Isle’s old Strand Apartments, which were owned by his grandmother, Mary “Molly” Cassidy.
“My first memory of Sea Isle is when I was standing on the Boardwalk, looking out on the ocean when the waves were coming in,” he said.
He came to understand just how powerful the ocean could become during the 1944 and 1962 storms. He recalled the town being swamped by flood waters in both storms. He saw entire buildings collapse, including the old Baltimore Sisters of Mercy Convent at 60th Street and the beach.
Sea Isle went through a rebuilding surge after each storm. Dramatic growth occurred again during the town’s more recent transformation into a summer vacation destination crowded with large, upscale homes.
Stafford said in the interview that he was amazed by the “unbelievable” changes in Sea Isle over the years. However, he said he believed Sea Isle still retains its small-town charms, particularly during the quiet, off-season months and around the holidays.
“I don’t think Sea Isle will ever go away. It will stay forever,” he said.
In 1982, Sea Isle celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding, which led to the creation of the Historical Society & Museum.
The museum opened in 1983 in a temporary space in the public school and moved 17 months later to a building behind the former City Hall.
In 1990, Stafford was elected president. He guided the museum through its next 25 years, resulting in many of the exhibits and programs, according to the museum’s website.
The museum moved to larger quarters at 4208 Landis Avenue in 1995 and moved again in 2011 to its current modern facility in the Sea Isle City Library building.
McHale and Powell said Stafford and his wife meticulously oversaw the museum’s growth and displays, including the centerpiece exhibit that features vintage wedding gowns worn by Sea Isle brides dating back decades.
“He really had a lot of passion and a lot of foresight for what he wanted to see in the museum,” McHale said, noting that Stafford personally designed the floor plan.
While growing up, Stafford spent all of his summers in Sea Isle and met Marie in town, according to his obituary. They moved to Sea Isle full time after Stafford retired from teaching in Pennsylvania in 1980. Then they moved to Clermont in 1995.
Stafford’s obituary described his involvement in the Sea Isle community, including formerly serving as the president of the Chamber of Chamber. But his “most beloved position” was serving as president of the Historical Museum, the obituary said.
“He wanted to get his hands into every part of the island, from the time he was a little boy right up to the time he passed. He was a Renaissance man,” Powell said.
In 2016, the Historical Society honored the Staffords by dedicating the Memorial Garden outside the museum in their name.
Stafford’s funeral Mass will be held Monday, Dec. 9, at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 4308 Landis Avenue in Sea Isle. A viewing is scheduled from 9 to 9:45 a.m. Mass will begin at 10 a.m. Interment will be at Calvary Baptist Cemetery in Ocean View.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Historical Museum, according to the obituary.
McHale said Stafford’s funeral procession will pass by the museum on the way to the cemetery.