Wayne Steele: Rehoboth’s election master general
Rehoboth Beach — Candidates in Rehoboth Beach have come and gone over the past 11 years, but one of the few constants every Election Day has been Election Inspector Wayne Steele.
Steele oversees city elections, upholding city and state rules and regulations and dealing with any problems that may arise.
Most of Steele’s duties take place on Election Day, where he serves as the bearer of good and bad news for the candidates as he makes his appearance, shortly after 6 p.m., to announce the winners.
Steele said he takes a very businesslike approach to announcing the results, even though someone will be elated and someone will be disappointed by what he reads.
“When someone files as a candidate for a contested position, they know upfront that the top vote getters will be elected and the others will not,” he said.
Steele said after the results are announced, he tries to congratulate the winners and encourage those not elected to remain involved and try again.
A native of Rehoboth and son of a dentist, Steele, 61, graduated from the last class at Rehoboth High School in 1969. He said the experience was bittersweet for the class, as they all knew they would be the final group to graduate from the school. Consolidation was going on all over the region, and Milton, Lewes and Rehoboth high schools would all be merged into Cape Henlopen High School.
"We knew it was coming," Steele said.
His family had a house on Philadelphia Street before moving outside of town to Seabreeze in 1960.
Rehoboth was truly a small town in those days, Steele said. He said townspeople always looked out for one another and knew one another. Steele said he still has friends he has known since kindergarten. The tourist season, he said, "was like flipping a switch," meaning they'd show up around Fourth of July and be gone by Labor Day.
"After that, it was a little town again," Steele said.
He said he enjoyed, and still enjoys the influx of tourists who come into town, because it allows him to make new friends and see new things. Steele said when he first started driving, Route 1 had no traffic signals between Lewes and Rehoboth. Instead of restaurants, strip malls and outlets, the landscape along Route 1 was all farmland supporting soybeans and corn, he said.
Although he lived outside of town, Steele also saw firsthand the damage wrought by the Storm of '62. He said his family was lucky, since their house was on high ground, but many of their Seabreeze neighbors experienced flooding.
In Rehoboth, Steele said, the Boardwalk had been torn to pieces. He said the end of Baltimore Avenue looked like it had been chopped off. Driving though town with his father, Steele saw the National Guard was in town to protect homes and prevent looting.
In 1980, Steele moved back to the Philadelphia Street property where he has lived ever since with his wife, Bunny.
The couple have known each other since the 1960s; Steele lived a block from his future wife’s grandparents in Seabreeze. They started dating in 1976 and will celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary later this month. The Steeles have no children or grandchildren, but they enjoy spending time with their nieces, nephews and godchildren.
Steele retired in 2010 after 34 years working for the Cape Henlopen School District. He was first hired in 1976 as a science teacher at the former Lewes Junior High School before moving to Cape Henlopen High School in 1988 to teach driver education.
Steele got involved overseeing elections in Rehoboth in the 1990s after being asked by the then-election inspector, the Rev. John Dean, to serve as a voting machine attendant. When Dean retired in 2001, Steele took over the post and has held it ever since.
The election officials in Rehoboth are appointed by the city commissioners every year, and for the past five years the same team has been in place: Steele, Nancy Meadows and Steve Elkins, who work with city employees to ensure an efficient and fair election.
“It is a pleasure working with these appointees and employees. Assisting with the election process is a type of community service I also enjoy. An added bonus is that on Election Day, I get to interact briefly with many residents and property owners that I may not see otherwise throughout the year,” Steele said.
Although he is enjoying retirement – walks along the beach and Boardwalk are a particular favorite – Steele said he would serve again as election inspector if asked. It’s all in service of a community he has come to love.
“I often refer to Rehoboth Beach as our little piece of paradise,” he said. “As a youngster, I did not realize how lucky I was to have been raised here, but as an adult, I am grateful to have remained here.”