Friends and family of Jay Stein could not help but smile as they talked about a man with an irrepressible zeal for life.
“Jay was probably the most zestful man I ever met,” Stein’s wife, Dian, said. “He had a lust for life and was a true renaissance man. Life was just magical to him.”
Stein, the co-owner of Stuart Kingston in Rehoboth Beach, died in his sleep June 12 of heart disease at the age of 74. Dian, and daughter, Mauria, said Stein had struggled to recover from open-heart surgery earlier this year. Mauria found him lying in bed as she went to make him breakfast.
“He was in bed, sleeping on his side. He wouldn’t have even known,” Mauria said. “Unfortunately in our family, it wasn’t his health, it was the genetics.”
“It was a shock,” Dian said.
A family dynasty
Maurice Stein started Stuart Kingston with partner Sydney Cohan at Grenoble Place and the Boardwalk nearly 85 years ago. Maurice Stein and Cohan named the business after an old boss named Stuart Kingsley. Jay Stein began working for his father in 1961 at the age of 21.
After Maurice’s death, the business passed to Jay; it will now pass to Mauria, making it three generations of Steins to head Stuart Kingston.
“My father asked me to come to work for him, and it was the biggest honor I ever had in my life because it’s all I ever wanted,” Mauria said.
For Mauria, the knowledge that her father will not be there to guide her along is the most emotional part.
Tearing up, she said, “After the open-heart surgery, I was in there with him by myself. My mom had left, and I was staying with my dad for a few hours, and he and I were chatting. He was telling me how proud he was, and what a really good job I’d been doing. He said, ‘There’s just a couple things I need to go over with you.’ I said, ‘Dad, I know. When you’re ready, you go over them.’”
“I feel the loss. I wasn’t ready to lose him. I wasn’t ready to lose that partnership I had with my dad. And that’s the hardest thing for me,” Mauria said. “I didn’t want him to go yet.”
After his surgery, he worked out at Elite Physical Therapy, next door on the Boardwalk. But Mauria said heart disease runs in the family. Her grandfather died in 1973 at age 67 after a stroke. Mauria said her father’s love of working out allowed him to live seven years longer than his father had.
Mauria said Stein was frustrated toward the end with how tired and weak he was feeling after surgery. Dian said he lost 20 pounds and had become very thin.
“He was so strong,” Mauria said. “He was not adapting well to the way he was feeling.”
Despite not feeling himself, Stein worked right up to the end.
“Jay would wake up in the morning, even at 74, and couldn’t wait to come to work,” Dian said. “He was going to work as much as he could.”
Passersby considered Stein as the mayor for the way he would hold court on the Boardwalk outside the store. The actual mayor of Rehoboth once worked under Stein.
Rehoboth Mayor Sam Cooper worked for Stuart Kingston for three summers from 1969 to 1971, helping clean and prepare rugs for sale. He worked six days a week for 11 hours a day, preparing rugs both for sale at the gallery and at auction.
Cooper said Stein was very friendly and good to work with. Although he did not have much contact with Stein after working at Stuart Kingston, Cooper said whenever he saw him, Stein always had something to say.
A proud Delawarean
Like Steve Jobs’ affinity for black turtlenecks, Stein had a personal uniform: ribbed dark shirts, usually black, with khaki pants or shorts.
“I said, ‘You know Jay, maybe we should give those a rest? Just give them a summer off?’” Dian said. “It’s like he worked at Sachs and had a uniform.”
Dian said her husband was a true Delawarean; he attended University of Delaware, briefly played football there and later had season tickets. Mauria said if the Blue Hens lost, it would ruin his day. Dian said Stein was especially proud of Vice President Joe Biden; in the course of his travels, she said Stein would scoff at people who did not know Biden was the former senator from Delaware.
“We traveled all over the world, but he said he never wanted to live any place else,” Dian said.
Stein's roots in the area extended into his business life: he was a founder of County Bank and was a member of the Beebe Healthcare board, something Dian said he was very proud of.
Dian and Jay met on a blind date in college, set up by Stein’s brother, Jim. She said on their first date, Stein showed up wearing dark sunglasses at night, the result of taking an inadvertent elbow to the face in a bar fight the night before.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Who is this crazy person?,’” Dian said.
Stein kept in touch; not long after they met, at a gas station, he proposed.
“He was always so impulsive. I thought, ‘What? Where’s the romance?” Dian said. “Sometimes you just work on instinct.”
The Steins were married for 49 years, and had three children, J.J., Mauria and Anita. J.J. died in 1997 after an accidental fall from the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal Bridge on Route 1.
Dian said she was still in love with Stein after all this time.
“I think I was truly lucky,” she said.
Dewey Beach-based entrepreneur Mike Mann knew Stein as a child; Mann said he remembers his grandparents taking him to auctions on the Boardwalk in his stroller. Mann and Stein had become closer in recent years when both worked out at Elite Physical Therapy.
"Jay was the greatest guy – real smart and kind and a fabulous business man and family man and truly a pillar of the Rehoboth community," Mann said. "He also traveled the world extensively and has friends all over the world and hundreds of stories and anecdotes from it all."
According to Mauria and Mann, in recent years Stein had become more reflective.
“He had gotten really sentimental as he got older,” Mauria said. “He used to say, ‘You are me.’ My dad and I, we thought a lot alike.”
Mann said, “I was with him much of his last day, driving around and talking about life and business and family. He recently told me he was so glad I was in his life and he loved me, which was touching because I am entirely estranged from any of my own actual relatives.”
“He lived life on his terms,” Dian said. “He got up in the morning and did exactly what he wanted to do."
He also loved Rehoboth Beach.
"Most people don’t recognize how lucky they are or how happy they are. Jay was always happy in the moment. He never wanted to be anyone else or be any place else,” Dian said.
The Steins have planned a Run for Jay, at noon Friday, June 20, in front of Stuart Kingston. The event pays tribute to Stein's love of running the Boardwalk.
A memorial service for Stein will be held at 10 a.m., Saturday, July 12, at All Saints Episcopal Church, 18 Olive Ave. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations to be sent to the John Jeffrey Stein III Foundation, 1 Grenoble Place, Rehoboth Beach, De. 19971. The donations will go towards funding for children’s education programs, a favorite charity of Stein’s.