Bridgeville’s Sharon McDowell stood up for her family and her neighbors.
Those who loved her say she had a heart for people, fought for underdogs and threw herself into community work.
McDowell, a wife, mother, business owner, former Bridgeville commissioner, fire company volunteer and more, died the day before Thanksgiving this year at age 73.
She served multiple terms on the Bridgeville Commission from 2013 to 2020, including a stint as Commission president (the town’s equivalent of mayor). McDowell also ran K&S School Bus Company.
Sharon and her husband Ken McDowell were active in politics beyond the town, and visitors at their simple Bridgeville home included state officials like now-President Joe Biden. Sen. Tom Carper played basketball in the backyard with the kids, Ken McDowell recalled. Gov. John Carney, a longtime family friend, attended Sharon’s funeral (the family didn't even mention this, but confirmed it when asked).
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the McDowell family,” the town of Bridgeville posted on Facebook after her death. “... She will be truly missed.”
Shaped by her early life
McDowell was born in Cambridge, Maryland and grew up in Dorchester County, part of a large family that experienced huge upheaval. Their house burned down because of an accident involving a stove, and the siblings were separated and taken in by different homes. That’s how Sharon ended up in Delaware, living in Greenwood.
Ken and Sharon met while she was working at Dillard’s Restaurant in Greenwood, which in a different incarnation is a place locals still gather (it eventually became Smith’s, and now is Emma’s Family Restaurant).
“That’s where I met her, and next thing you know we’re dating,” Ken said. The McDowells are a Bridgeville family going back hundreds of years, and after she married Ken, Sharon plugged into the Bridgeville community for the rest of her life.
Her son Bo McDowell connected Sharon’s early years in poverty with the way she later stuck up for those with tight finances.
“She always remembered that. She just had to do without, and she didn’t want other people to,” he said.
One person McDowell leaned on for advice after she became president of the town commission was Joe Conaway, a former president of the commission and a longtime family friend. Conaway had been principal of Bridgeville High School when Ken was a student and he and his wife Joann kept in touch with the young couple.
McDowell’s heart was to look after the underdog, Conaway said, people who pay the bills but never show up at town council meetings. Divisions of social class, he said, were “never her cup of tea.”
“We had a lot of discussions about any proposals that came up for increases in taxes or fees … she was very much in tune to, is there something better that we can do than simply raise taxes as Bridgeville continued to grow,” he said.
“She was very against raising rates on anything as I remember,” Bo McDowell said. “She would not vote on anything that was going to cost anybody an extra dollar. She was very worried people would not have a roof overhead or food or something like that. She didn’t want anybody to do without, so she was always trying to save people money. And they appreciated it, and she didn’t have opponents (when she ran for commissioner) because she was always their voice.”
Meeting needs, often behind the scenes
McDowell’s community work wasn’t in all the glamorous jobs, but in the volunteer jobs that make a difference in everyone’s life, Conaway said.
Take her famous fudge, for example.
Fudge is a notoriously finicky dessert to make and McDowell honed her craft over many decades.
A batch of fudge in the works was a common sight in the McDowell home, and Ken McDowell said people would come from far and wide to get it.
One man said he wanted to take some of her fudge with him to the grave, and in fact she sent off a number of people that way: If there was a funeral, she’d make a batch and take it to the funeral home. She would never charge for it, but she would donate batches to the Lions Club so they could use it to raise money. At sales like that it tended to disappear quickly. Her fudge made its way to the governor’s office and local politicians Thurman Adams and Ben Ewing were fond of it.
The secret recipe is still in the family, as Bo’s wife Khristina makes a credible version. “I can’t tell the difference,” Bo said.
McDowell’s cooking abilities went beyond fudge, of course. She’d help prepare chicken and dumplings for fire company auxiliary dinners or sandwiches for the department when members were out fighting a fire. She would “fall right in there and make 200 sandwiches,” Ken said.
Her bus company was another way McDowell made her mark on Bridgeville. Ken had the business when they got married, and then he was offered a position in charge of the Department of Elections in Georgetown, so Sharon took over. “It worked out,” Ken said: She ran it for more than 30 years.
Her business reflected her desire to help others. McDowell would sometimes send buses to help other contractors who needed them, Ken said. And her bus drivers were just like family, Bo said, so much so that they attended the private family viewing. McDowell also cared about the kids on her buses, sometimes collecting and giving coats to children who needed them. She also served as an informal mediator between the school system and parents.
In all of that, “She always put her family first, and had a lot of fun with us,” Bo said, “and never missed a Little League game. She was always there, yelling the loudest in the stands.”
A bridge builder
McDowell's family recalled a woman with drive who wanted to help people.
“She always stood up for whatever she believed in. She didn’t pump the brakes,” Bo said. “She was full steam ahead; if she believed in something, she let everybody know.”
But she was able to build support for those convictions rather than trying to steamroll people.
“A lot of people liked her. She could get a lot done,” Ken said. “... She was a good recruiter.” When there were tensions between the new Heritage Shores development and the older side of town, Sharon reached across the divide, he said.
McDowell officially stepped away from the Bridgeville Commission in August 2020 for health reasons.
She died Nov. 24 surrounded by family, her obituary said. She is survived by her husband Ken, her three children Tina, Derek and Bo, and six grandchildren.