Oscar ‘Sonny’ Schulz is one of those Kent Islanders everybody knows.
Sonny’s a prominent businessman. A longtime civic leader. He’s the proud dad of three enterprising, community-minded sons and a granddad to seven.
But there’s always more to everybody’s story.
Sonny was born in Dominion on June 25th, 1933. His mother’s family, the Cloughs, were of local heritage, but his paternal grandparents had emigrated from Germany. Within Germany’s strict social class system, Sonny’s grandfather was a peasant, his grandmother an aristocrat. America offered a young couple in love the freedom to pursue a life together.
Oscar and Maude, Sonny’s parents, had two children before Sonny was born. A sister, Charlotta, died at the age of four after eating a poisoned peach. The fruit had been sprayed with arsenic and Dr. Sattelmaier was unable to get to the child in time. Sonny later learned that losing her daughter, “almost killed my mother.” Brother John was much older than Sonny and died at fifty.
Sonny’s father was an oysterman and a carpenter who struggled with his health. In World War I he’d survived a mustard gas attack, the long term affects of which were progressively debilitating. Sonny was eleven when his father died.
Despite the financial difficulties he and his mother faced, Sonny graduated high school, a feat not necessarily common for farmboys and the sons of watermen.
Sonny has always been ambitious. “I’ll never forget the first day I made five dollars,” he says. “Billy Schulz, my cousin, had a bicycle he was going to sell because he bought a car. He wanted five dollars for it. So mother said whatever I made that day I could put toward the bicycle. I picked a hundred bushels of tomatoes. Made five dollars.”
Sonny served in Korea: “Went over, came back, and wasn’t twenty one years old.”
When he returned to Kent Island, Sonny went right back to work. Oystering. Road construction. Painting. Chartering fishing parties. Whatever it took to make a buck.
Mother Maude Schulz was industrious, too. She was employed by the Thomas family. The Thomas’ owned a little business at Kent Narrows. Downstairs was a restaurant. Upstairs were four guest rooms. They called the place Fisherman’s Inn.
Betty Thomas worked there too, for her parents. She and Sonny married in 1956.
Betty stayed involved with her family business while Sonny worked on the water. Eventually, her father divided his Kent Narrows property between Betty and her brother. Sonny remembers that, “traffic was increasing eight to ten percent a year and business wasn’t increasing at all. We decided in 1969 to take a chance and build a new restaurant. We opened the Monday after Mother’s Day 1971.”
Sonny thinks about that for a moment, and adds, “We burned down December 23rd, 1980. That was a bad Christmas.”
We left here a little after ten,” he says. “When the alarm went off around midnight, we came back down. It was so cold the (fire department’s) ladder truck froze. When they made a hole in the roof, the windows exploded. A week later we had to burn it down again to finish the job. We hauled out 90 truckloads of debris.”
Reconstruction started the first of February, 1981 and Fisherman’s Inn reopened a short five months later.
Local politics beckoned in the late 1970’s and early 80’s when Stevensville merchant and civic booster Julius Grollman encouraged Kent Islanders to get more involved with their government. Power was historically based up-county, in Centreville and Sudlersville. “Little people didn’t have much of a chance of getting involved,” Sonny says. But the Bay Bridge changed things. More people were settling on Kent Island, supporting businesses and increasing the tax base.
Established area leadership resisted the young Kent Island upstarts and wouldn’t allow them on the party ticket. “So we started a new ticket. Got enough signatures on a petition to get on the general election. Next year the state legislature passed a bill you couldn’t do that anymore.”
“None of us got elected,” he continues. “But later, next four years, Jules got elected. I was treasurer for eight years and county commissioner for eight years.”
By this time, Betty and Sonny’s three boys, Andy, Jody and Tracy were grown. They inherited the family’s gene for hard work and took more responsibility in the business.
Sonny‘s an activist in the best sense of the word. He’s a past president and active board member of the Maryland Restaurant Association. Past president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association. He was instrumental in starting the county’s first tourist board and has won awards for his successes in economic development.
The philanthropic endeavors undertaken by the Schulz family are numerable.
Fisherman’s Village, which includes Fisherman’s Inn, the Crab Deck, and Seafood Market employee about 200 people during the summer. The weekly payroll is in the tens of thousands of dollars. That’s a lot of money generated into the community from what was once a little family business.
Sonny Schulz remembers a Kent Island that provided “a free life”: A Kent Island of vegetable gardens and soft crabs and hen houses. A place where young men shot marbles and wore old hand-me down Pittsburgh Pirates baseball uniforms – “I could wrap it around me three times.” Where locals would spend pretty Sundays on the hill at Matapeake watching the ferries come and go, observing people, and looking for faraway license plates. “Cars would back up from Matapeake to Bill Denny’s (in Stevensville). That’s how the firehouse got started, selling sandwiches and soda to people down there.”
Talking to people like Sonny can help those who never lived then and there imagine that Kent Island.
It also reminds you that there’s always more to everybody‘s story.
Even to those you think you already know.
Sonny Schulz turned 80 this week. Happy birthday Sonny!
Betty Schulz passed away in 2011.