A man who served in Vietnam and the Delaware House of Representatives and who also became a respected member of the Rehoboth Beach business community, Bill Vernon remained a lifeguard at heart.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m., Tuesday, March 25, at New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Lewes.
For the past three decades, Vernon and his friend and fellow lifeguard Dr. Bruce Wright had a ritual in homage to their years as members of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol in the mid-1960s.
“We could see each other’s houses,” Wright said. “Every Memorial Day we would sign on and every Labor Day, we would sign off.”
The two still had whistles from their lifeguarding days, and when the summer season rolled around, they would signal that they were on duty: arms out, make a cross sign over the head and down again. The sign off was their way to say goodbye to the summer, Wright said.
Vernon died March 10 after a yearlong battle with cancer at age 69.
Born in Odessa in 1944, Vernon graduated from Rehoboth High School before going to college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Ga.
Gary Butler met Vernon as a student at Georgia Tech, and they, along with fellow Yellow Jacket Roy Scravley, formed a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
Butler said the trio would meet up whenever they could, sometimes at Georgia Tech football games, but more often at Vernon’s house in Rehoboth. There, they would hang out, fish and reminisce about old times. Despite Scravley’s death from a heart attack, Butler and Vernon stayed in touch. Butler joked that he finally got Vernon into sophisticated red wines after 40 years of trying.
Butler said Vernon loved his Georgia Tech fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, and took the organization’s brotherly bond very seriously. He said Vernon worked his whole life to maintain the group's camaraderie.
Butler and Vernon were both joggers, and Butler said his fondest memories with Vernon were 10K runs and jogging on the Boardwalk, which Butler joked was often a good way to work out a hangover from the night before.
When Vernon became ill, Butler said, he made more effort to stay in touch. Butler sold his house in New Jersey two years ago and bought homes in Hilton Head, S.C., and Sarasota, Fla. During the last week of Vernon’s life, Butler arranged for Vernon to come to Hilton Head and then go down to Sarasota, where Vernon helped Butler purchase his first boat.
“He got a kick about being a part of it,” Butler said. He said Vernon was happy to get out of the house and be active.
“I’m going to miss touching base with him,” Butler said. “I will miss that kind of weekly communication.”
Long-lasting friendships were a familiar theme with Vernon. Wright met Vernon 55 years ago when Vernon was in training for the Rehoboth Beach Patrol. Wright was four years older, but the two became lifelong friends.
They reconnected when they both came back to Rehoboth in 1968, and their families became close. Wright said his son, Stephen, and Vernon’s son, Billy, rode in the same stroller together and became lifelong fishing buddies.
Wright said the thing he remembers most about Vernon was how dignified and principled he was. Vernon had many real estate business dealings over the years, but Wright said he never heard anyone say a negative thing about Vernon, who tried to treat people fairly and take the high road.
“I admired him for that,” Wright said.
Vernon’s moral code came into play when he served in the Delaware House of Representatives from 1977 to 1981. Harry Derrickson, who had decided to retire for health reasons, had represented the then-37th District. Vernon, a Republican, was persuaded to run and won.
Wright said when it was time to run for re-election, Vernon decided to call it quits after one term because he felt he was compromising himself, being asked to support things he did not believe in.
Vernon’s brother, Geoff, two years younger than Bill, said although a bit of a straight arrow, Bill always had a good sense of humor and liked to have a good time.
From a young age, Geoff said, his brother had a passion for cars, which Geoff said stemmed from their father, a car dealer. Vernon’s first luxury sports car was a 1952 Jaguar that he restored while in high school and was very proud of. Then came the Storm of ’62. A tree fell across the car and squashed it.
Despite the death of that Jaguar, Vernon maintained his love of cars, owning a second Jaguar, a Maserati Ghibli, a 1963 Corvette and a contemporary Corvette.
Geoff said his brother’s defining qualities were integrity, loyalty and responsibility.
“He was a shining star in those regards,” Geoff said.
Wright said Vernon was a mentor to many young people in the Rehoboth business community, a person others wanted to emulate. He said it was very difficult to see Vernon at the end as he struggled with cancer. Wright said he saw Vernon a week before his death. Vernon had fallen and could not get back up. Wright stayed with him throughout that night and towards the end, the two would speak often of old times.
“It was very difficult to see him deteriorate,” Wright said.
Former Sen. George Bunting knew Vernon since the 1970s and the two had much in common: they were both soldiers in Vietnam, their fathers were both soldiers, they both started in real estate in Ocean City, they were both former lifeguards and both shared a building in Rehoboth.
Bunting eventually moved into the insurance business, and later, Vernon became a client. Bunting said Vernon was a meticulous and classy guy, who he said saved his life. Bunting said in 2008, he was struggling with a kidney ailment. He had been on dialysis for months and the stress of running a business and being a legislator were wearing him down.
One day, Bunting said, Vernon came to his office and passed him a news article about kidney transplant swaps. Bunting said his wife, Donna, read the article and dogged Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to sign up for the procedure. Eventually, Bunting got a healthy kidney, and he credits Vernon with the inspiration for his procedure.
“If it hadn’t been for Bill, I’m not sure I’d be here,” he said.
Vernon is survived by his wife, Sharon, and his children Bill and Jennifer. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m., Tuesday, March 25, at New Covenant Presbyterian Church, 3072 Savannah East Dr. off Kings Highway in Lewes. In lieu of flowers the family wishes donations be made to the American Cancer Society or the New Covenant Presbyterian Church Building Committee, 3072 Savannah Road, Lewes, DE 19958.