By Stefanie Jackson –
For 27 years, a group of friends and neighbors in Cape Charles with no particular affiliation, religious, political, or otherwise, has been raising thousands of dollars for individuals and organizations in need in their community.
Every January, the group raises money at its annual Epiphany party, named for the Christian holiday held around the same time of year celebrating the story of the three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
Though the celebration borrows its name from a Christian tradition, and it has been held in local church fellowship halls in the past, it isn’t a religious event, Epiphany partygoer and Cape Charles Councilman Chris Bannon said.
The Epiphany party was conceived as a way for friends to help lift each other out of the post-holiday slump people often find themselves in after Christmas and New Year.
The group decided the official date of Epiphany, Jan. 6, was a bit too soon after New Year, so the party is held on Lee-Jackson Day weekend (the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day).
Rick Bowmaster, former Kiptopeke Elementary School assistant principal and Northampton schools superintendent, is credited with starting the event.
It’s open to the public with no charge for admission. There is free wine, beer, and chili cooked by local Butch Vest.
There is also an annual auction that began as a fun way to get rid of unwanted holiday gifts. Guests were instructed to bring their least favorite Christmas presents to be auctioned off for a charitable cause.
The quality of the items donated for the auction and the creativity in their selection has grown over the years. There have been plenty of appliances, a bicycle, and even a few works of art.
The auction inspired a unique tradition involving a pair of pink, plastic flamingo lawn ornaments that are sold every year. The highest bidder gets to display the flamingos in their yard until the next year.
The first Epiphany party raised $500; now it is common for the event to raise more than 10 times that amount every year.
Larry Veber is the official auctioneer, but, “The heart of the Epiphany party is Chris Bannon. The soul of the Epiphany party is Joan Natali.”
These two longtime Cape Charles citizens are essential to the event’s success, he said.
Bannon recommended the Epiphany party as a fun way to “get out of the house, see people you don’t see often … and make a fool of yourself!”
Donation recipients over the years have included the Eastern Shore Boys & Girls Club, the Cape Charles fire department, library, museum, and playground, and more recently, New Roots Youth Garden and Citizens for Central Park.
This year, more than $6,000 was raised for the Cape Charles Watermen’s Memorial Fund, plus $800 for the Cape Charles Volunteer Fire Company, which hosted the event.
In addition to the auction proceeds, $1,200 was raised by “passing the boot,” a traditional waterman’s boot passed around to be filled with donations.
Ed Lewis is the president of the Virginia Watermen’s Memorial organization, and he has been working toward the memorial’s completion for 22 years.
The memorial currently features a replica of the Cape Charles lighthouse and a bench.
The complete design also includes a black granite wall reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a brick walkway, and a bronze statue of a boy looking out to sea, standing next to his father’s empty boots.
The memorial is located by the Cape Charles harbor, in front of the Shanty restaurant.
The organization was started in 2000 by Rita Hutton, whose son, Michael Hutton, was lost at sea when the clamming vessel he was working on sank in 1992. Michael Hutton was honored at the Lost Fishermen’s Memorial in Cape May, N.J.
The Cape Charles watermen’s memorial is patterned closely after the one in Cape May, which features a statue of a woman looking out to sea, with her son and daughter at each side.
The plight of families who have lost loved ones at sea is close to Lewis’ heart. He was a professional diver and Chesapeake’s first police diver during his 25-year career as a police officer. He also dived for the Coast Guard on contract.
In 1993, a year after Rita Hutton’s son died, Lewis joined a group of volunteer divers who went to New Jersey to search for Michael Hutton’s body. Their experience was documented by WAVY-TV reporter Andy Fox. Michael Hutton was never found.
That was more than 25 years ago. Membership in the Virginia Watermen’s Memorial organization has dwindled and the few members that are left have aged and are limited in how much they can contribute.
Lewis is looking for new members to help him finish the memorial. He is seeking funding and accepting donations of materials. He estimates it may cost between $60,000 and $90,000 to finish the memorial with the granite wall and bronze statue.
Jon Dempster, who owns the Shanty, is donating the bricks for the walkway. The bricks can be engraved with a message in honor or in remembrance of any loved one. It does not have to be a waterman who lost his life at sea. The cost is $250 for a small, engraved brick or $500 for a large one.
For more information on the Cape Charles Watermen’s Memorial or to find out how to help, Lewis can be reached at 757-705-6128.
To be added to the invite list for the Epiphany party, email [email protected]