Shore benches keep loved ones close

An anonymous plague on a bench on the Ocean City boardwalk. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
An anonymous plague on a bench on the Ocean City boardwalk. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 04, 2012

Alone on a boardwalk bench in Ocean City, Michael Porreca has the chance to be with his father.

"Sitting on the bench is a nice time to clear the head and think back positively about my dad and the relationship he gave me," said Michael Porreca, 55, who now lives in Denver. "He loved Ocean City, he loved going down there so much."

Porreca feels connected to the deep blue bench, which contains a simple, but heartfelt message: "In loving memory of Wayne J. Porreca / 1932-1998 / A Wonderful Father / David, Michael, Mark & Wayne Jr."

The bench was placed in 1997 after Wayne Porreca died unexpectedly of a stroke at 65. It offered both a way for the family to cope with their grief and celebrate their good times at the shore.

For the Porrecas growing up in New Jersey meant summers in Ocean City. With four boys and his wife, Audrey, at the shore home, Wayne Porreca would shuttle during the week between his appliance store in Millville and the beach. He grew tomato and basil in his garden, barbecued for friends and exercised with his boys on the beach.

The sons are now scattered across the U.S., but they still visit the shore and bring a newer generation of Porrecas with them. Of course, a trip to the shore means a trip to the bench. When Wayne Jr., 51, who now lives in Leesport, Va., visited for July 4 he struck up a conversation with someone he saw sitting on "pop's bench."

"It was special for me to see someone even just sitting there," he said. "It's a city bench, but it's our family's bench."

The Porreca bench was placed when few memorial benches appeared on the boardwalk. Today, 450 benches with commemorative plaques stretch the 2.5-mile boardwalk. The city created the boardwalk bench program in 1996 as a way for longtime Ocean City vacationers and residents to remember loved ones and fun times at the shore for the cost of the bench and a plaque, up to $650.

The program placed 350 benches before running out of room along the boardwalk in the early 2000s. It got a reprieve in 2008 when 100 benches were added.

These days, the city urges those who want to remember loved ones to fund bike racks, surf chairs and pavers.

One of the issues for Ocean City and other localities is how to maintain the street furniture.

Wildwood Crest which has programs for both park and beach benches recently began charging families $500 every five years for upkeep.

Ocean City year ago floated the idea of a recurring fee but the public wasn't interested, said James Mallon, Ocean City community services director.

Those interested in Ocean City memorials are directed to newer options like adopting a bike rack, donating a surf chair or placing a paver at Veteran's Memorial Park. A paver costs $150 and a tree, the most expensive memorial option is $1000.

Mallon said the option of planting a tree or buying a bench in parks at North Street, 8th Street and at Sandcastle Park at 34th Street are attractive to those who remember trips to the park as children with parents or grandparents.

"They have a special bond with Ocean City," he said.

While the new programs draw interest, the boardwalk benches are the sentimental favorite. On a sunny weekend day, that's where families stop to pack beach gear, individuals are deep in the pages of a book or couples sit with an ice cream and hold hands.

For some, these benches are part of the background. Others feel connection to the benches and will walk down the boardwalk scanning the names. Occasionally, a name will stick out to passersby.

People approach Pat Croce, former 76ers president, to tell him they sat on his bench and he'll correct them. "That's the real Pat Croce's bench," he will say.

The bench is a memorial to his father, who died in 1993 at age 65 of prostate cancer. Croce's mother, Dolores, bought the bench at Pennlyn Place for her husband, which reads: "Pat Croce's Bench / Hi Dad! / We're with you on the boards / Love Dee, Pat, Vince, Joe & John."

Croce said he imagines his father - a "gregarious, tough Italian" - sitting on the bench when he passes during his morning exercises down the boardwalk. He pictures his father sitting on the bench and laughing, wearing one of his favorite t-shirts, which read "I'm the real Pat Croce."

"If I ride or walk in the morning I see it and it makes me laugh. I can see the old man smiling," said Croce during a recent visit.

William Meehan, de facto leader of the Republican Party in Philadelphia for many years before his death, also has a bench.

"If we could reach up and hold a star for every time you've made us smile, the entire evening sky would be in the palms of our hands / WE MISS YOU DAD / William Austin Meehan / 1925-1994," reads the Meehan bench, located near 13th Street and complete with clover leaf inscription for his college years at Notre Dame.

The five Meehan "girls" had the idea for the bench and shared it with the four Meehan brothers, said daughter Marianne DiDonato, 58, of Blue Bell.

"He would love to just sit on the porch, prop his feet up and wave at the people driving by that he knew," DiDonato said, recalling her father sitting outside their beach house on Wesley Avenue.

The Meehan family owned a home at the shore for more than 20 years. It was where the nine Meehan children found their first jobs and one daughter met her future husband, said Meehan's son, Michael Meehan who leads the city Republican party.

"The summer respite was at the shore," Michael Meehan said. He recalled that longtime Delaware County GOP leader John McNichol, who died in January, had a shore home a couple doors away. The late Jack Kelly, the Olympic athlete, would vacation there with his family, including daughter Grace Kelly, the future princess of Monaco.

The majority of those who have ordered plaques are families who have visited Ocean City for generations, said Jon Wulff, production manager at Schoppy's in Linwood, which has made the plaques.

Some plaques are more unique than others, but all come with a story, Wulff said.

"It gives them a sense of closure and they have somewhere they can go and remember them that's personal," Wulff said.

Not all benches are memorials, but can be gifts to individuals or the community. Inscriptions on the benches may be simple ("HAPPY BIRTHDAY WILMA / SEPTEMBER 25 / LOVE BOB) or cryptic ("... in all the word of song or pen... the best are those that might have been...").

The Brigidi family bench, located between 12th and 13th streets, is one of the few presents JoAnn Brigidi has kept.

"I thought it would be a heck of a present. She wouldn't be able to return it," said Bart Brigidi, 65, who gave her the bench in 2004.

The bench includes a message Bart worked on for months with JoAnn: "Thank you God & St. Jude for our children, our blessings, and our. . .Little House - Big Water / Bart & JoAnn Brigidi / 2004 / 'Buy High, Sell Low.'"

Ocean City isn't a vacation spot for the Brigidis; it's where they've made a living renting and selling houses which as their inscription teases, didn't always make them money.

Now living in Vineland, the Brigidis hope to move back to Ocean City. JoAnn, 59, told Bart she doesn't need a big house, just a chance to look at the ever-changing ocean and sit on her bench.

"We love our bench. I would never return it, she said.

Contact Dara McBride at 215-854-2703 or dmcbride@philly.com

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