Saltwater Portrait

Myra Oates: From Milton newcomer to near native in eight years

Not a phony bone in her body
June 19, 2018

Myra Oates may not have much time left on Earth, but the native New Yorker says moving to Milton eight years ago was one of the best decisions she's ever made.

Oates has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but she's taking the news in stride, grateful for all the friends she's made since moving to Delaware.

"I'm 78. I've seen 3-year-old children die of cancer. God owes me nothing," she said, with a still-pronounced New York accent. "I smoked for 40 years. The fact that I was as healthy as I was for as long as I was is amazing."

Since relocating to Milton from Queens, N.Y., Oates has done the near impossible – befriended the natives. She's connected with Jack Hudson, Denny Hughes, Maryann Warrington, Jack Bushey, John Potocki and pretty much every other pillar of the Milton community.

"We've established some real friends," she said. "For a Catholic Democrat to come into a Sussex County Republican town and not be stoned is saying something. You can always find something good about somebody ... unless they're totally psycho."

Oates' Milton story began at the fire hall. As she and husband John were driving around, learning the lay of the land, when they came upon the stone Dalmatian outside the fire hall. Almost all of its paint was gone. "I was smart enough to know that I shouldn't just walk right into the fire house and say 'your dog looks like crap,'" she said. "I waited a few months and got to know that Denny Hughes was one of the guys you could ask."

So one day while walking past the fire hall, she thought it was a good time to knock on the door. Two EMTs answered and said he wasn't there, but one quickly got Hughes on the phone. "This is a small town," she remembered thinking at the time.

She said Hughes was initially skeptical, but when she said she didn't want any money, but only to perform a good deed, he gave the OK. Little did she know, he would become a close friend. She also painted the mermaid outside Salon Milton on Chestnut Street, owned by another friend, Potocki. She remembers her first interaction with him.

"He turns around said, 'Are you new here? ... Did you come to change the town?' I said, 'No, I came to keep it the way it is.' That was it. We were buddies then. The rest just evolved."

Over the last eight years, she's dipped her toes in almost every group in the community, but ultimately landed on four organizations that she finds important – the fire department, the library, the VFW and the Milton Food Pantry. "I worked all my life. I didn't have time to volunteer," she said.

She contributes in her own way to each group, and each has brought her closer to the people of Milton. "I really feel blessed to have come here and to be thought of so fondly," she said. "I've been told I'm as close to a native as anyone's going to get."

She's made it her mission to record Milton's history through the older generation still alive. "The shipbuilders have been dead for 200 years, and they'll still be dead in 200 years," she said. "You've got 30 people in their 80s and 90s ... if you sit them in a room and just listen to them talk to each other, you'll learn stuff you'll never get from any interview."

Before she passes, she said, her goal is to document the histories of a few Milton natives, people who have a story to tell, but likely wouldn't sit down for an interview on camera. She said she wants to build a fact sheet about who they are and what they did, so their contributions live on after they are gone. "These stories are priceless," she said with tears in her eyes. "When I hear people use the term dumb rednecks, I want to kill them. They're so much smarter than some of the people who've gone to college."

What she's come to love about Milton's natives is their generosity and their loyalty to friends. Bushey once gave her a Milton Fire Company hat to add to her large collection of Milton hats. She gave it to one of her grandsons, but almost immediately regretted giving away that cherished gift. She called and asked if he could give her another one. A few days later, he showed up at her front door. "He lays out eight hats," she said. "He said 'I got the boys together, and we all got into our cache of hats and this is what we've got, but I've got five other guys working on it also.'"

She said she thinks people like her because she's a straight shooter, always telling it like it is. "I've been told that I haven't got a phony bone in my body," she said.

She also says that's why she excelled as an alcoholism counselor for 15 years in New York. Her approach was never by the book, instead, she used her gut when talking with someone. "I worked with a lot of late-stage homeless alcoholics of various colors," she said. "I always seemed to know what to say. My supervisor used to say, 'I'd get killed if I said that!'"

She said she was the only counselor in her unit that was not a recovering alcoholic. She said several people in the program often used that as a way to say she didn't understand what they were going through. "I said, 'No, but I know what it's like to be different. I know what it's like for people to make judgements about you.'"

That personal experience came from her childhood; she is the daughter of two deaf parents. Oates was born and raised in a four-room apartment in Brooklyn. She has one sister, who's six years older. Her sister had helped her parents greatly growing up, but when she married and moved out at 17, it fell on Oates to take over.

"I remember going to an unemployment office at 9 years old with my father and translating for him, and I had no idea what I was saying," she said. It was a different time, she said, and deafness wasn't as accepted as it is today. "I can remember sitting on a subway station with my parents and signing, and everyone assumed I was deaf also," she said. "They would call my parents dummies and stupid."

It was those experiences that resonated with Oates, and she was able to pull from them when working with alcoholics in detox. "Everything in life has a tendency to prepare you if you pay attention to it," she said.

Oates and her sister have no hearing loss, but it was passed down to her children. "I have four children, three of whom are deaf, and one who doesn't listen," she joked.

Times had changed by the time her children reached school age, and they were able to attend the first parochial school for the deaf in Brooklyn. Each excelled in school, with two going on to earn master's degrees, she said. For much of her children's early years, she was a single mother. She eventually met her future husband, John, and they dated for 14 years before finally marrying 28 years ago. "He was a confirmed bachelor and I was afraid to marry another psycho," she said.

When the couple looked for a place to retire, they found Delaware based on a suggestion from Oates' son. Rehoboth and Lewes weren't what they were looking for, but Milton checked all the boxes. "I saw old houses. I saw black and white people walking together. I saw white families with adopted black kids. I said this is where we belong," she said.

And as she nears the final chapter of her life story, she has begun making arrangements to ease the burden on her family. She plans to be buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery next to Milton's baker Alice Marvel. It wasn't until this interview that Oates learned of Marvel's sterling reputation, often credited – though it's disputed – with creating the legendary Milton sticky buns at the former Milton High School. As a pretty good baker herself, she said, she couldn't be happier to have Marvel as a next door neighbor for eternity.

"I feel blessed I've been able to live in a place I absolutely love," she said. "Whoever I am, belonged here and will stay here."