Shock turned swiftly to sorrow in the Cape Region April 7 with the sudden passing of Dewey Beach Mayor TJ Redefer.
Among Dewey’s most ardent advocates, TJ had an easy smile, affable personality and youthful enthusiasm that carved his own place in the history of the town he loved, long before he was first elected commissioner in 2017.
TJ’s Dewey roots run deep. In 1925, his ancestors purchased land in Dewey and created Rehoboth By the Sea. Great-grandfather George A. Mcmahon built seasonal rental cottages on the land, many of which still stand today.
A consummate businessman
In 1986, TJ opened Rehoboth Bay Realty Company with his father; his son Jack later joined in the business.
Families who purchased a home through TJ were more likely to find a lifelong friend than a mere business relationship. Patrice Gancie said she and Randy Bregman bought their beach house from TJ three years ago.
“His openness and warm personality reached us in unexpected ways,” Gancie said. “After we moved into our home, TJ continued to give us advice. I wish we’d known him for more time.”
As a businessman and homeowner, TJ worked to find solutions beneficial to both interests. Jim Caperelli, owner of doggie daycare Taj Ma Howl, said he wouldn’t be in business without TJ’s determination.
“He had a vision about how beneficial this would be,” Caperelli said. “He cared about the people in this town, and I know he cared about me. I’m going to miss him dearly as a mayor but mostly, I’m going to miss him as a friend.”
Friends struggle with loss
Steve “Monty” Montgomery, owner of The Starboard and Dewey Business Partnership president, said TJ is an irreplaceable friend.
“He was always there for all of us, would reach out often, as it was always about us, never him,” Montgomery said. “As a mayor, others will come, but it will be hard to ever find one who loved this town and everything it stood for as much as TJ Redefer did. Heaven got themselves a new mayor this week. Here in Dewey, we are a better place thanks to all of TJ’s efforts, personality and love of our town.”
Woody’s owner and Dewey Business Partnership Vice President Jimmy O’Conor said he is struggling with the loss of his friend.
“I will always remember TJ’s smile and endless caring for others,” O’Conor said. “He’s the man I was lucky enough to meet when I first arrived in Dewey. I am blessed and humbled to call TJ my friend, and my life is better because he was a part of it, even though it was cut too short.”
Drone photography pioneer
TJ was an early enthusiast of drone capabilities, piloting under the name Sky Jack Pics and capturing aerial photos and videos of the beach area he loved. He eagerly lent his expertise to novice drone photographers, such as Rob Waters of W Films and Elliot MacGuire of Elliot MacGuire Photography.
Waters began working with TJ when he needed drone shots for his film “Need Change” in summer 2005.
“I was looking for the best drone videographer, and everyone said he was the best,” Waters said. “His shots took the film to a much more professional level than I thought was possible at the time.”
After that, Waters said, he and TJ worked together to create Cape Gazette stories and real estate videos.
“Without him, I don’t think W Films would be the successful company it is today,” Waters said. “He even acted in films if I asked him to, as seen in the ‘Dew Town Road’ video.”
Waters said “Dew Town Road” singer Morgan Shank was working on a new song and video about being quarantined, in which TJ was set to reprise his role.
“At one point, Morgan would decide to leave his house, and TJ would be outside with the cops ordering him with a bullhorn to get back inside,” Waters said. “TJ created so many wonderful drone shots for us over the years. He taught me everything I know about flying a drone.”
MacGuire said TJ was always willing to answer any drone questions. “And I had a lot! Every time I’d see him, we’d talk about new drones, pictures we took, or how great a sunrise or sunset was. I always looked forward to his images and his enthusiasm for how he got the shot.”
A Dewey native becomes mayor
When TJ was elected commissioner in 2017, fellow commissioners unanimously named him mayor, a position he held ever since. He was re-elected to another two-year position as commissioner in 2019.
Commissioner Paul Bauer, who ran twice for office in partnership with TJ, said TJ was a mayor and friend to all in Dewey Beach.
“I am so incredibly proud to have called him my colleague, and I will forever call him my friend,” Bauer said. “TJ selflessly stepped up to take a leadership role when the town faced challenges and needed him most. TJ excelled in building consensus among commissioners, bridging gaps with communication, and uniting business owners and residents alike. TJ consistently did the right thing no matter the consequences, with compassion and consideration for all.”
Bauer said TJ was an active and visible mayor who always engaged in community and social activities.
“TJ had a positive attitude and collaborative approach like no other,” Bauer said. “His kindness and respect for others has made a tremendous impact throughout Sussex County. He was a fixture in our community and will be greatly missed. His legacy will live on through his incredible family, through all who knew him, and the many improvements and positive changes the town has seen through his leadership.”
Dewey Commissioner Dale Cooke, who TJ often referred to as the elder statesman on town council, said TJ was a true gentleman and all-around nice guy.
“We started as political adversaries, but I came to know him as a true proponent and defender of what it means to be part of the Dewey Beach ‘way of life,’” Cooke said. “His talent was standing up for all town stakeholders, even when those very same stakeholders were in the middle of a protracted political battle. As part of both the Dewey homeowners and the business owners, he always attempted to bring those oftentimes divergent sides together for the betterment of the town. He did a wonderful job as mayor, and was well respected both in town and statewide in the business and political communities.”
Commissioner Gary Persinger said no one had higher hopes for Dewey than TJ.
“He worked hard to make those hopes become a reality,” Persinger said. “We will miss his leadership and are deeply saddened that he cannot help us work through the cascade of problems we will see in the next few months. I hope there is some comfort knowing that our small world in Dewey Beach is better because he was here.”
Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, said he was devastated by the news of TJ’s passing.
“While I don’t get involved often in municipal politics, I was more than happy to support TJ in both of his campaigns for Dewey commissioner, especially this past win last August,” Lopez said. “TJ always sought to build consensus, and in the world of politics, particularly Dewey Beach politics, that can be difficult, but he worked hard at it.”
Lopez said the current paving project coordinated with the Delaware Department of Transportation is an example of TJ’s belief in doing the right thing.
“TJ pushed hard for that, as he has always pushed for greater support for Dewey Beach for road and sidewalk improvements and drainage needs. Not glamorous issues, but important ones to maintain public safety,” Lopez said. “TJ really cared about people. He understood the meaning of the word ‘loyalty,’ and even when there were disagreements, he was never disagreeable. I miss him already. This is a tough loss for the Cape Region, and my heart aches for Bobbie and the kids.”
Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, said TJ always referred to him as a big brother in the political arena.
“He especially liked our Friday morning breakfasts at The Starboard, where he made so many friends and always bragged about Dewey,” Schwartzkopf said. “Dewey is a better place because of him, and it won’t be the same without him. I will miss him tremendously.”
Family was everything
Above all, family was most important to TJ. His wife Bobbie said they met at the Waterfront on a June evening - while she was on a date with someone else.
“He was bartending,” Bobbie said. “I took the other guy home, and told TJ, ‘Save my drink, I’m coming back!’”
Bobbie said their first date was the following night at Fager’s Island, where he brought her a single long-stemmed rose. They were married the following summer at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oxon Hill, with the reception at Andrews Air Force Base Officers Club. They drove to Captiva and Sanibel, Fla., to honeymoon.
“This June, we would have been married 32 years,” Bobbie said. “For our 30th anniversary, we went to Disney. We had a first-class flight and stayed in the honeymoon suite at the Grand Floridian. His whole life was about making us happy. That was his whole life’s work.”
Bobbie said TJ was a Beebe baby, and that Beebe Healthcare saved his life on Valentine’s Day 1997. At the time, Bobbie, a nurse, was teaching at Beebe Nursing School when she got the call that during an X-ray, his heart had stopped.
“They resuscitated him, and he had two liters of fluid around his heart,” Bobbie said. After treatment, it happened again, so he had thoracic surgery at Johns Hopkins University. “He took such good care of himself after that.”
Children Leigh Ann and Jack were the light of his life. “He gave them the tools to be the strong humans they are,” Bobbie said. “He was so proud of them. Every day, he told them to learn something new today. That, and ‘welcome home’ were his two big sayings.”
Bobbie said she and TJ would divide and conquer to make sure they attended all of Leigh Ann’s and Jack’s high school, travel and college lacrosse games. “It was important for him to support them in every single thing.”
In 2016, the family built a new home in Dewey Beach. “It was always his dream to move back to the place he was born,” Bobbie said. “Nobody loved this place like TJ did.”
The family loved to travel, spending each Easter in Key West, and flying to London to see her favorite Redskins one year, and his beloved Eagles play the next year. “We just bought tickets to see Notre Dame play Navy in Ireland,” she said.
Over Christmas, the Redefers joined the Lockwood family for a 10-day trip to Hawaii, where TJ was able to see Jack ask his high school sweetheart, Kirstin Lockwood, to marry him. In September 2019, he was able to walk Leigh Ann down the aisle to marry husband Thurman Winslow.
“The last couple months he took such care of us, and I miss him so much,” Bobbie said. “I am humbled and honored to be his wife for nearly 32 years.”
A final welcome home
The Redefer family invites everyone to maintain social distancing and safely line Route 1 in Dewey at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, April 11, to welcome TJ home as he takes one last ride through town. TJ will be privately laid to rest next to his parents in Epworth Cemetery.