Bill Downs, fiscal watchdog, dies suddenly

Pressed school district for transparency
William Downs takes time at his Milton farm with Bub, his favorite Long Horn bull. COURTESY CARLA ROBINSON
September 5, 2014


William Downs, a local businessman and fiscal watchdog, passed away suddenly Sept. 2 after complications from surgery.

“He was up and moving around and we thought we'd be going home,” said his wife, Andrea.

Downs went to Christiana Hospital Aug. 12 for heart surgery to replace a valve, she said.

All appeared well until he started to complain about his lungs – he passed away in the hospital without returning home, Andrea said.

Downs had remained active with the excavation company he started 34 years ago, D.G.M., Inc. His younger son, Robert, handled the daily operations, but Andrea said, Downs took care of bidding for jobs. An older son, David, lives in Wilmington. Both sons graduated from Cape Henlopen High School.

Downs, 62, was born in the Angola area and lived his life in the Cape Region. He attended Lewes High School and graduated from Cape Henlopen High School in 1970 after high schools in Milton, Rehoboth and Lewes consolidated.

After graduating from high school, Downs worked at the Rehoboth Beach Country Club where he was eventually promoted to golf course superintendent.

But it was his work as a tenacious watchdog for taxpayer money that many remembered him most.

Downs was part of a group of residents who formed Cape Henlopen Taxpayers for Fair Elections – a group that sued the Cape Henlopen School District in 2006 over construction of the new high school. The group alleged the district picked the architect and construction management firms to build the new high school without following legal requirements.

The parties settled the lawsuit in 2007, and as part of the settlement agreement a scholarship fund was created with $50,000 paid by EDiS and BSA+A, the construction managers and architect of the high school project.

Downs continued to administer the scholarship through the Delaware Community Foundation. The scholarship's purpose is to encourage open and honest government on the local, state and federal level by providing scholarships to students of the Cape Henlopen School District who have taken an interest in encouraging open and honest government.

Cape Henlopen school board member Sandi Minard worked with Downs on the scholarship fund, and she considered him a friend.

“He was a great watchdog for the taxpayers,” she said. “He really believed in transparency. He felt that business should be done in the open.”

School board member Jen Burton ran against Downs in 2012 for the Cape Henlopen School Board. The two met after the election to shake hands and talk about some issues facing the district.

“It was really great to get together and talk,” Burton said. “He was glad to hear that I had the same concerns as he had.”

Board member Spencer Brittingham recalled the generosity of Downs and his family. As a youngster working at Camp Arrowhead in the summer, Brittingham rode past Downs' father's house daily. When Edgar Downs heard Brittigham had won a youth worker of the year award, Edgar Downs bought Brittingham a new bike and Downs helped Brittingham pick it out.

Years later, Brittingham said even if he disagreed with Downs regarding school matters, Downs was always fair and willing to share ideas.

"The Cape Henlopen School District is a better school district because of the input and contributions of Bill Downs," Brittingham said.

Andrea said Downs loved spending time with his family at their farm in Milton. Locals have long enjoyed driving by to see an assortment of animals in the pasture from Long Horned bulls and donkeys to ostriches, emus and llamas. Andrea said Downs' favorite was a Long Horned bull named Bud who Downs raised from a calf.

He also had a dedicated group of friends with whom went with weekly, if not daily, to the M &H Restaurant in Milton and also Cracker Barrel in Rehoboth Beach.

“He was a great family man,” she said. “He especially enjoyed meals here with all the family.”

Those who knew him will surely miss his sense of humor and his practical jokes, Andrea said with a chuckle. She politely hesitated when asked if she could recall some of his pranks, adding only, “There were some good ones.”

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m., Monday, Sept. 8, at Parsell Funeral Homes & Crematorium, Atkins-Lodge Chapel, 16961 Kings Highway, Lewes, where friends may visit beginning at 9:30 a.m. Interment will follow services at Conley's Chapel Cemetery, 22150 Robinsonville Road, Lewes. In Downs' honor, the family requests casual attire.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to A. I. DuPont Children's Hospital, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19899.