Tom Draper recalled as energetic, pioneering businessman

WBOC owner was committed to Delmarva
September 12, 2017

Friends and coworkers remember Tom Draper as a man full of energy and passion about his work.

Draper, 76, an avid bicyclist, was riding eastbound along Slaughter Neck Road Sept. 7 when he was struck by a pickup truck also traveling eastbound. He was taken to Milford Memorial Hospital and flown to University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore where he underwent surgery that afternoon, but he died as a result of his injuries at 2:37 a.m., Sept. 8.

Mariah Draper Calagione, the oldest of the four Draper children, said the family is devastated by the sudden loss of their father and grandfather. “We are so fortunate to have so many of his friends and colleagues reaching out with wonderful stories of their time with him. Those are helping to get us through this difficult time," she said.

The four children serve as board members for the Draper company and will continue to do so, Calagione said.

“We are extremely grateful for the wonderful leaders at the companies, and we look forward to working with them to continue growing my dad’s media legacy here on Delmarva,” she said.

Craig Jahelka, president of Draper Media, said the WBOC family is also grieving. “Tom was a broadcast pioneer, who said often those of us at WBOC have a moral obligation to serve the people of Delmarva. Our thoughts and prayers are now with his family,” he said.

Dennis Forney, publisher and co-owner of The Cape Gazette, said he has known Draper for 42 years – a friendship that began when the two played with the Delaware Lacrosse Club in the 1970s. “He was a lot better player than I would ever dream to be,” Forney said.

Draper graduated from Brown University in 1964 with a bachelor's degree in political science. A member of the men's lacrosse team, he was captain in 1964. He earned All-Ivy and All-American distinction and was also inducted into the Brown University Athletic Hall of Fame.

Forney and wife Becky received news of Draper's death as the two were taking a break from riding their bikes more than 900 miles en route from Lewes to Michigan. “Tom was always available when I needed to talk. I admired his energy, commitment to Delmarva and desire for quality. I am fortunate to have had Tom as a mentor and friend,” Forney said.

Draper celebrated 50 years in the news industry on Sept. 3. He bought his first radio station at age 26, WTHD radio 93 in Milford, followed by WAFL a few years later.

During a televised tribute aired on WBOC, Draper credited talented people with his success. “When I think I can learn something, I’m all ears.”

Draper entered the television industry in the late 1970s, after bidding three times for WBOC. He then sold his radio stations to focus on WBOC. “I was a committed marketer and grower of WBOC,” he said. “I was committed to the fact that I thought news and information was the core of our business.”

Jahelka said Draper had an office in Milton that he visited every day. “He was semi-retired but he was still very involved,” Jahelka said.

At the time of his death, his obituary states, Draper was close to launching Telemundo Delmarva, a Spanish-language station.

Milton Town Manger Kristy L. Rogers said Draper and his family have been extremely generous to the Town of Milton and its community organizations. “He loved Milton and was a wonderful community partner,” she said.

Draper was instrumental in the redevelopment of the former Draper-King Cole Industrial site into Cannery Village, and also in the relocation and expansion of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, owned by his daughter and son-in-law Mariah and Sam Calagione. The Milton Public Library, Milton Fire Department, Milton Community Foundation and Milton Theatre were all beneficiaries of Draper’s generosity.

“The Town of Milton is tremendously fortunate to have Mr. Draper so involved within the community. We are saddened with the news of his passing and send our deepest condolences to the Draper family. Mr. Draper is deeply missed by many,” Rogers said.

In 2011, Draper donated property to the Milton Historical Society. At the time, Board of Trustees President Dennis Hughes credited Draper for helping the society grow. Draper approached the board with a vision and proposal in 1999, and he was named chairman of fundraising. By 2006, the endowment for the society was nearly $350,000.

Johnny Hopkins, vice president of Loblolly LLC, a farming and real estate company owned by Draper, said the impact Draper had on Milton and surrounding areas was vast. “There are many facets to him. He’s touched many lives and many business arenas,” Hopkins said.

Dozens of people have reached out to Hopkins since Draper’s sudden passing. “He certainly leaves a big hole in our hearts. We’ve lost our founder of the company,” he said.

Hopkins said the Loblolly farming and real estate company owns about 4,500 acres of land throughout Sussex and Kent counties in Delaware and Queen Anne’s and Wicomico counties in Maryland. 

Hopkins said he has worked for Loblolly for almost 15 years, and there are so many memories that no single one stands out. “Mr. Draper was certainly a gentleman. He was my mentor and friend.”

Salisbury University received money from Draper Holdings Charitable Foundation to help build the school's Draper Holdings Communications Center. President Janet Dudley-Eshbach said she was saddened to hear of Draper's death.

“He was a dynamic and visionary leader in the communications industry and a friend of Salisbury University,” she said. “WBOC has provided opportunities for generations of SU broadcasting interns and alumni, in front of and behind the cameras.”

Politically, Draper was a Republican who served as a Delaware delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said he will miss Draper's wise counsel on politics. “Tom had little patience for waste in government and for ineffectual politicians,” Simpson said in a statement. “He liked straight shooters and was willing to support those candidates who he thought could make a difference.”

Rep. Harvey Kenton, R-Milford, said Draper was a close friend, a friendship that began in their Milford school days when they played baseball, football and hung out together. “Today a piece of my heart and soul left me,” he said.

No charges have been filed in the crash that led to Draper's death. Shawn E. Armstrong, 37, of Lewes, was driving the 2013 Ford F150 pickup truck eastbound on Slaughter Beach Road that struck Draper, police said. Armstrong stopped immediately after the collision and called 9-1-1, said Master Cpl. Gary Fournier of the Delaware State Police.

Funeral arrangements

Draper was born Aug. 18, 1941, in Media Pa., the son of the late William Reed Draper and Ruth Kelley Draper. He is survived by his four children and nine grandchildren: daughter, Mariah Draper Calagione and her husband Sam of Lewes and their children Sam and Grier; daughter Molly Draper Russell and her husband Bobby of Orlando, Fla., and their children Mason, Olivia, Liza and Mack; son Thomas Henry Draper Jr. and his wife Amy of Milton and their children Thomas, Linley and Harlow; and his son William Reed Draper II. He is also survived by his sisters Ruth Draper and Diane McGuire, both of Dover; and his loving partner Francesca Curtin of New York, N.Y.

A visitation will be held 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14, at Crossroad Church, 20684 State Forest Road, Georgetown. Draper's funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 15, also at Crossroad Church. Burial will be held privately.

His obituary states memorial donations may be made to the Draper Holdings Charitable Foundation, One The Square, Milton, DE 19968, which will benefit nonprofit organizations that Draper was especially passionate about.