Saltwater Portrait

Barbara Dougherty: The reel side of Dewey Beach

"One tough cookie" speaks on cancer, politics and surf fishing
October 1, 2013
Dewey Beach historian and resident Barbara Dougherty shows off a king fish and a flounder, both of which she caught surf fishing off Swedes Street. BY MICHAEL PARASKEWICH

Many people are familiar with Dewey Beach’s wild nightlife, but for Barbara Dougherty the town’s essence lies on the beach.

Dougherty hits the beach on Swedes Street most mornings at about 8:30 a.m.  She sets up her surf fishing pole and her beach chair and enjoys the serenity until she feels a tug at the rod. She always waves at Beach Patrol Capt. Todd Frichtman as he rides by on a four-wheeler to make sure all the dogs playing and being walked on the beach are licensed.  Occasionally, a passerby will ask her what’s biting that day.

Dougherty is wearing a T-shirt that reads “One tough cookie” across the back and baseball cap that reads, “Women who behave rarely make history.”

She said she is more thankful than ever for her mornings on the beach.  For a full year, she couldn’t enjoy them; she was too exhausted from cancer treatments.

Dougherty said she first noticed symptoms during an April 2012 trip to Washington, D.C., with her daughter, Sarah.  “I just couldn’t get my breath, and I had this pain,” she said.

Dougherty was later diagnosed with a type of ovarian cancer.  She said she had to undergo 4.5 months of chemotherapy.

Dougherty said she has always been an athlete, and her love of field hockey stems back more than 50 years.  “I used to be in the gym five days a week,” Dougherty said.  “It’s hard to go from that to basically feeling like you’re an invalid,” she said.

Chemotherapy exhausted her; even showering was a chore that required assistance, she said.  Dougherty also said her immune system was so weak doctors would not allow her to engage in any strenuous activity or be exposed to sunlight. “It really is like torture,” she said.

She said she missed out on surf fishing the summer of 2012.

Just before she was set to undergo major surgery, Dougherty took a trip to Cape Henlopen High School and gave a pep talk to the field hockey team.

Dougherty played field hockey for Notre Dame of Maryland High School in the 1950s. “Please know there is not a problem that can’t be solved even if you don’t like the solution,” Dougherty told the team.  “Hopefully, your teammates and coaches will always be there for you as mine have been for me. That’s part of the game we play.”

Dougherty said she has remained friends with some of the women from her team, one of whom was her nurse during surgery.

On Nov. 14, doctors at Beebe Medical Center performed a debulking procedure to remove the tumors from Dougherty’s body.  “They did five major surgeries in one,” she said.

While Dougherty was recovering, the Cape field hockey team won the 2012 state championships.  The team brought its trophy to Dougherty in the intensive care unit.  “That was like a dream come true,” she said.

“These girls remembered everything I said,” Dougherty said.  “They were very encouraging.”

Also, she said, the whole team calls her Cookie, short for “one tough cookie” – a moniker bequeathed to her by Dave “Fredman” Frederick.

Buoying up

Dougherty continued to undergo chemotherapy after surgery – from January to the end of March.  She said her energy began to return in June, and she was back in action for the summer of 2013.  “I can’t be cured, but I can be treated,” she said.

Beebe Medical Center and Tunnell Cancer Center are equipped to provide Dougherty’s treatments, she said, so she never has to travel beyond Lewes.  “The Beebe home healthcare system was wonderful,” she said.

Dougherty was cleared for surf fishing, and she made a few alternations to her technique to ease the stress on her body.  “I managed to modify how I throw my pole out,” she said.  “And now I can be in the sun.”

Dougherty has been fishing since she was a young girl.  “I learned surf fishing from my mother,” she said.

She said her aunt and mother used to cast their lines early and return home for breakfast with king fish, which she ate with her grandmother’s homemade biscuits and sliced cantaloupe.

Dougherty said she now lives next door to two young girls who are already developing fishing skills.  She was recently on the beach when one of the girls, a 7-year-old, reeled in a striper.  “It was a good 15 or 16 inches,” Dougherty said.  “Beautiful fish.”

Dougherty also said she met a 12-year-old girl named Jules this summer, whose father was a fisherman, but did not allow her to fish.  “I don’t know why he’d never let her fish,” Dougherty said.

After a few quick instructions, the girl caught her first fish, Dougherty said.  “She was over the moon about it,” she said.  The next day, Jules came back to Dougherty, cast another line, and caught a shark.

When she’s not teaching young girls how to catch fish, Dougherty said, she prays.  Her favorite verse is one written by Wendy Harpham:

“God, grant me the…

stamina to keep pushing when it can improve the outcome,

courage to adjust when now is the best it can be,

and wisdom to know the difference.”

Calmer waters

Dougherty, who has been the official Dewey Beach historian for 20 years, was recognized by town council Sept. 6.

In her speech at the meeting, Dougherty referred to a Sept. 3 editorial, published in the Cape Gazette.  “Last Tuesday’s Cape Gazette had a spot-on editorial on our town. I quote the last line: ‘The calm in Dewey Beach will not last forever, but a one year halt to the mayhem can only be a good thing.’  I remind all of you that our commissioners love this town. If you have something negative to say at least for this year try to balance it with something positive,” Dougherty said.

For the past few years, town elections have been divisive and peppered with personal attacks between candidates.  This year, the Saturday, Sept. 21 municipal election in Dewey Beach was cancelled when only three candidates filed for three open seats.

Dougherty said she thinks Dewey Beach is finally calming down, and different factions are finally attempting to work together.

“I guess CVS and Giant and Walmart are wondering why they didn’t sell so much blood pressure medication this September,” she joked.

“The town is what it is, and there’s something here for everybody,” she said.

Dougherty said she noticed significantly more families vacationing in town this summer.  “They love the bonfires especially,” she said.

Dougherty said when she spent summers in Dewey Beach as a child, life revolved around the beach.  With more families in town, the focus seems to be shifting back to the beach, she said.  “That really is the center of the community,” she said.

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