'He never met a stranger': Remembering Bridgeville's Bill Jefferson
The town of Bridgeville has lost another community leader with the recent death of William “Bill” Jefferson, a former town Commission president and volunteer.
Jefferson died Friday, Dec. 31 at the age of 75, only a little over a month after the passing of another former Commission president, Sharon McDowell.
He served on the Bridgeville Commission from 2001-2010, the last two of those years as Commission president, which is the town’s equivalent of mayor. He also served as president pro tempore (a vice mayor of sorts) for three years, was an early organizer of the Apple Scrapple Festival, and, his obituary notes, served in other roles as needed including Santa Claus at Christmas.
In his years as a town leader and resident and in his decades as a salesman with Messick and Gray he made connections with people all over the community and around the country. His wife of 36 years, Sally Ann Jefferson, said, “My husband didn’t see a stranger. No matter where we went, we ran into somebody he knew.”
That held true even on vacation, she said, since Jefferson traveled around the country for his sales job.
You also never knew how long he’d be gone when he set out on a walk around the neighborhood, Sally Ann said. “He’d say ‘I’m going to take Molly (their dog) for a walk.’ Well, he might be gone 20 minutes, or he might be gone two hours, because he would stop and visit with the neighbors … many a time I had to call him and say, ‘Your dinner’s on the table. Are you coming home today?’”
Joe Conaway, former Bridgeville Commission president who served for years alongside Jefferson, said Jefferson was not the kind of person who would work a room like other politicians, but “he’d talk to you like he knew you forever.”
“He never met a stranger,” Conaway said.
Jefferson was one of the people who pushed for the creation of the Apple Scrapple Festival, said Bonnie Workman, one of the festival’s founders. “He loved his town,” she said, and was a great guy who “would do anything for anybody” and tried to make the town better.
That even included doing free work on Town Hall, Conaway said.
In its most recent newsletter, the town of Bridgeville paid tribute to Jefferson. “He was a deeply committed member of our community and will be missed,” the town said.
Jefferson would handle the applications by businesses and vendors to set up displays at Apple Scrapple, Conaway said. “I (can) still see him riding around in his golf cart with Molly sitting in the front seat watching everything.”
“He just loved this community. He loved the people here,” Sally Ann Jefferson said.
Part of the way he showed affection was by telling whoppers. Everyone who talks about Jefferson quickly mentions his sense of humor. He got a big kick out of trying to put one over on people, although Conaway claims he knew better than to believe Jefferson’s lies.
“He was a jokester,” Workman said.
“He’d tell you something with a straight face and you’d believe him and it was a right bold faced lie,” Sally Ann Jefferson said, calling Bill an instigator who loved pranks. “When my sister first met him, she didn’t like him because he would pick on her. But she got to love him.”
Jefferson was a big guy, Conaway said, but easygoing, and not much rattled him.
Another side of Jefferson that quickly comes up in recollections is his craftsmanship.
“Oh my, beautiful things,” Workman said of his work, noting he made benches to put around town.
Jefferson was a woodworker who was part of the Mason Dixon Woodworkers, a club in Delmar, and Conaway recalled him making toys for children at Christmas. He put his talents to work for his family, of course, making furniture, his wife’s kitchen cabinets and things for his grandchildren, Sally Ann Jefferson said. One of those was a baby cradle his grandchildren slept in.
“Three years ago he retired; he knew he wanted to do this kitchen,” she said.
“I have a feeling he knew he was getting tired,” Sally Ann said, because usually he had a project going in his workshop – until recently. He finished up working on a cabinet for one of his children and gave it to their family the week before Christmas this year.
“He walked out of that shop and locked it. That was the last time he was in there. There was nothing left to be done,” Sally Ann said.
Jefferson ran for town Commission because he thought more needed to be done for the town, she said.
Conaway recalled that when he decided to run for Commission in 2001, he swung by Jefferson’s house.
“I said ‘Billy, I’m going to run for town Council, and will you sign my petition?'” Conaway said. Jefferson said “Sure,” but added, “I want to run too.” He, Conaway, and Patricia Correll ended up running as an unofficial slate so they would have the votes to get things done on the Commission, which Conaway said was an unusual step.
Although Jefferson served on the Commission for almost a decade and worked on issues like improving the town’s financial situation and bringing in a new library, Conaway said he was surprised when Jefferson first said he wanted to run for office. “I never thought of Billy as being a politician.”
He remembered Jefferson needling local Sen. Thurman Adams, who as president pro tempore of the Delaware Senate was the highest ranking senator. “Many a time we were together at a political or a public event, he would get on Thurman that … they shared the title ‘pro tem.’”
“Although Bill received many accolades throughout his life, his biggest accomplishment was the friendships he fostered with so many lifelong friends,” his obituary read.
He is survived by his wife, sons Charles, William Jr., Scott and Dale, stepdaughter Catherine, stepson Ted, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.