Delmarva Mourns Loss of Tom Draper

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On Friday, September 8, Tom Draper, owner of WBOC, passed away from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident on Thursday, September 7 at 7:30 AM. Mr. Draper, who was an avid bicyclist, was struck by a pickup on Slaughter Neck Road near Wells Road. The driver immediately stopped after the collision and called 911. Mr. Draper was transported to Milford Memorial Hospital and then airlifted to Baltimore Shock Trauma where he underwent surgery for his injuries, but was pronounced dead at 2:37 AM.

Mr. Draper was born in Milford in 1941 and spent his boyhood years in the town. He attended boarding school before going on to Brown University where he excelled at lacrosse. In 1964, he was named team captain and All American. He eventually was named to the Brown University Hall of Fame. Upon graduation, he returned to Milford. He bought a radio station, using his initials in its call letters, WTHD. Milford historian, Dave Kenton, said that he met Mr. Draper when he returned to Milford after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1972.

“Tom was building the local radio station, WTHD, into a broadcasting center for Kent and Sussex Counties in Delaware,” Mr. Kenton remembered. “Tom’s entire focus during that era was sales and operating income to sponsor his future acquisitions. My brother, Bill Kenton, Jr., was hired to head the sales team and Bill asked about a salary. Tom replied, ‘you get a rate-card and a road map.’ Tom believed in personal initiative and his early employees were all self-starters. Tom saw the potential for country music in Sussex County and changed his radio call sign to WAFL with a format of modern country music. This change enabled the radio station to grow very fast with an audience reaching from Smyrna to Salisbury.”

Mr. Kenton said that Draper worked diligently with Milford’s local leaders and was elected President of the Chamber of Commerce.  Milford was in the midst of a transformation period from 1970 to 1980 when improving the appearance of the downtown area was considered a priority for future growth. The Mispillion River was cleaned up and downtown shopkeepers pledged to improve their stores with modern features. At the same time, Mr. Draper joined forces with David G. Burton and Sudler Lofland to form a company called “Riverbank Associates.” That organization rehabilitated ten downtown properties starting with the original Carlisle Fire Company building, Milford Chronicle building and, later, the Jump Block on North Walnut Street and the new Windsor Hotel. Mr. Draper also worked with Dave Burton and Raymond Masten to build Milford Plaza, creating one of Milford’s first modern shopping centers.

Mr. Draper married Rachel Grier, the grandniece of Dr. G. Layton Grier, one of the founding members of L.D. Caulk. Dr. Grier owned a home at 200 Lakeview Avenue and when the home became available in 1977, the Draper’s purchased the Victorian mansion and restored it, adding modern conveniences. Since the death of Mayor Ed Evans in the 1960s, Mr. Draper was one of the biggest promoters and salesmen for the town of Milford. Mr. Kenton said Draper had a relentless drive to accomplish things in years that usually took decades to accomplish.

“I played lacrosse in a club started by Tom, my brother and Dennis Forney, a resident of Lewes and news editor,” Mr. Kenton said. “Tom loaned considerable athletic skills to the team and became the central leadership figure for the team. As an avid hunter, Tom thought about starting a hunting club with his friends and soon purchased a 350-acre farm near Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge named “Bombay Hunt Club.” Tom organized ten members who invested $25,000 each for a stock membership in the hunting club. Bill Kenton, Jr., Rick Fischer, Bob Burris, Tom Barnard, Lex and Rick Bayard, Steve Welch and other community members played an important role in this club. Many dinners and meetings were held at this club with lifetime friendships sealed.”

In 1980, Mr. Draper decided to purchase WBOC, a television station that was owned by A.S. Abel Company out of Baltimore. He put together a group of investors, which Mr. Kenton said were some of his closest friends, making them early partners in the broadcasting business he was organizing. The Burton, Fischer and Kenton family worked with Mr. Draper to organize the new television station. This financial support of Mr. Draper’s dream to build a broadcasting empire on Delmarva is a direct result of his support of Milford’s growth.

Under Mr. Draper’s leadership, the station grew significantly. He began by building a news room in Dover in 1986 with a goal to cover all of Delmarva. He believed that the local community was not just a few towns, but was all of the peninsula. Over the years, he bought and sold stations in Kansas and Texas, but kept WBOC as his top priority. In 2003, WBOC launched a second station, UPN 21 which eventually became Fox 21. It was a $13 million investment that took WBOC to the next level.

Mr. Draper was a supporter of the new Bayhealth Sussex Campus project which will be completed just south of Milford in 2019. He said that all his children were born in the hospital, but that was not what led him to contribute to the Campaign for Bayhealth – Phase III in support of the new campus. Instead, it was a way to celebrate his family’s continued presence in Sussex County, one that could be traced back to Alexander Draper who arrived on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1658 and settled on Cedar Creek in Sussex County in 1677.

“I believe in Bayhealth’s vision for the southern Delaware community,” Mr. Draper said once. “The health campus project will change the course of Milford to some extent. The brand-new building will help with physician and employee recruitment, it will boost employment opportunities in the area, and it will also attract top healthcare organizations, such as Nemours Children’s Health System, to lower Delaware. That impact will be felt throughout more than just Milford.”

Mr. Draper was an avid bicyclist, riding 10-miles each day from his home in Milton, where he and his second wife, Karla, moved when Draper began working on a project to renovate the former Draper-King Cole cannery into a residential housing community, now known as Cannery Village. The property is also the location of Dogfish Head Brewing, owned by Mr. Draper’s daughter and son-in-law, Sam and Mariah Calagione.

“It is an understatement to say that Tom Draper was a unique individual,” Senator Gary Simpson said. “Philanthropist, naturalist, businessman, hunter, leader, friend, father, grandfather and so much more. He was a proud Delawarean and an unashamed lover of southern Delaware and its natural beauty, taking great pains throughout his life to protect it for future generations. One of the things that struck me most about Tom was his uncanny ability to quickly sift through the BS of an issue and get to the heart of the discussion. He was smart and unparalleled visionary who could see into the future and make wise decisions on how things could be made better.”

State Senator Simpson said that Mr. Draper was never content to do things as they had always been done in the past or in maintaining the status quo if he thought he had a better idea. He was willing to take calculated risks that almost always turned out to be correct. Simpson said that Draper enjoyed life to the fullest and that he believed, if it were possible, that Draper would have loved to have been an early pioneer and explorer of the old west or take steps on the moon. Senator Simpson considered Mr. Draper a personal friend and that he will miss his wise counsel when it came to politics.

Draper was a lifelong Republican and Senator Simpson said he had little patience for waste in government and for ineffectual politicians. He liked straight shooters and was willing to support the candidates he felt could make the most difference. Despite his success, his friends and colleagues say that Draper was a humble man who did not need to build himself up to the public. He was not boastful, although he could be forceful. He had a quiet strength that garnered respect.

“Tom has been a close and personal friend of mine since 1972 and I have always admired his strong-willed personality and desire to accomplish great challenges,” Kenton said. “I now live in Tom and Rachel Drapers’ former home and owe a lot of my success to Tom’s example and leadership in the Milford community.”

 
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