The past year has been a difficult one for Charlie Fleetwood. In January, Fleetwood began experiencing random falls. “I started to stumble. By then and the end of July I probably fell 15 times. I went to three neurologists, and the third finally found out what was wrong with me,” he said.
Fleetwood was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a condition where his spinal column is narrowing, pinching his spinal cord and affecting nerves going to his brain.
“My brain thought my feet were walking and they weren’t. That’s why I was falling,” he said. “Fourteen times I fell on my butt. The 15th time I fell going to the back door. My left foot didn’t go high enough, and I tripped and I fell flat on my face. Busted my nose. Two black eyes. I felt like I had been punched in the nose. I didn’t have the chance to break my fall or anything.”
In September, Fleetwood, 70, had surgery to fuse discs in his neck. “I can turn my neck some, but I can’t lay my head on my shoulder,” he said.
The Milton councilman missed three months of meetings as part of his recovery. He’s had weeks of physical therapy, and is looking forward to 8-12 more months of rehabilitation. Fleetwood has to use a walker and wear a neck brace while standing, something he has grown to loathe. “It’s to keep my neck from turning. Three months, I couldn’t drive. I’ll have to learn how to again,” he said.
Fleetwood said his goal now is to be able to walk with a cane, something he has started to do, although he still needs to use the walker to navigate turns.
Surrounded by his wife, Barbara, and friends at one of his favorite hangouts, The Suburban Farmhouse in downtown Milton, Fleetwood is matter-of-fact about his condition. “It was harder for her than it was for me,” he says. “At home, when I fell, Barb would have to call the fire company to come and pick me up.”
Besides spinal stenosis, Fleetwood was also diagnosed with two tumors in his neck; both were benign. One has already been removed, but it added to the health issues Fleetwood was already experiencing.
The Fleetwoods have been married for 49 years; their 50th anniversary will be in October.
“He was a blind date,” Barbara said.
The couple has no children. “The town became our kid in a way. We were able to devote a lot of time to it,” Fleetwood said.
Fleetwood was working for Sears in Wilmington at the time. Barbara was born and raised in New Castle. They have an easy rapport, but while he seems to take his health problems in stride, she can’t hide her concern. “It’s been a very trying year,” Barbara said.
While this has been a difficult year, Fleetwood has long been working to shape the town of Milton. The Fleetwoods arrived in Milton in 1979. A career salesman, Fleetwood was working for Graves Uniforms in Lewes at the time. “I couldn’t afford to live in Lewes,” he said.
“Milton was central to every place we went in Sussex County,” Barbara added. “We rented a house on Chestnut Street for two years. Then we moved to a house on Atlantic Street and lived there 11 years before moving to our house on Bay Avenue in 1992,” Fleetwood said.
Three years after moving to Milton, Fleetwood was appointed to town council the first time. “We were friends with Don Post,” Fleetwood said. “Bill Post, his brother, was mayor. A fellow that had just got re-elected, his job changed. He worked at Chrysler in Newark and they put him on night shift, so he couldn’t make any of the meetings.” Having served on the planning and zoning commission, when Bill asked if he would like to serve on council, he said yes.
At the time, he said, Milton’s population was around 1,300, but it has doubled in the years since with the additions of Cannery Village, Wagamon’s West Shores and Heritage Creek, all annexed into the town. Fleetwood said the growth of the town is the biggest change from his first tenure on council.
“The first budget I worked on was $300,000. Now, it’s $3 million,” he said.
He said Milton’s downtown business sector has ebbed and flowed over the years, with now being a time when all the shops are full. “Milton has two problems with downtown: either there is not enough parking or there’s too much. There’s too many empty stores with too much parking or all full with not enough. We’ve seen that three times that I know of,” Fleetwood said.
He said the current good fortune of Milton’s business community has been spurred in part by the resurgence of the Milton Theatre and the additions of Irish Eyes restaurant and Dogfish Head brewery.
Fleetwood recalled the days when the brewery and the surrounding property were home to the King Cole Cannery. “Where WBOC-TV is, that was what they called the power station. That’s where they made the steam. Every night at 11 p.m. they would blow the stacks and would blow oil all over the place. Where Dogfish is, that was the freezer plant,” he said.
Fleetwood left the council in 1996 - then he really got busy. He helped organize and was president of Friends of the Milton Library. He was president of the Milton Historical Society and of Milton Community Foundation, which helped raise money for the John Milton statute in Mill Park on Mulberry Street. He spent a decade as chairman of Milton Chamber of Commerce, working on establishing Governor’s Walk and Bargains on the Broadkill and serving on the town’s 200th Anniversary Committee.
In 2016, Fleetwood decided to run for town council again but came up short in a five-way race that saw incumbents Sam Garde and Michael Cote retain their seats. “I didn’t know a lot of people that had moved here, and they didn’t know me,” he said.
That same year, Councilman Ted Kanakos was elected mayor and decided to tap Fleetwood to serve the remainder of his term on council. He won a full term in March, running unopposed.
As for what has kept him active and involved in the town for nearly four decades, Fleetwood said, “When we came here, new people, it was a big deal. Everyone’s been nice to us. ”
Now, Barbara said, “Milton is home.”