Welcome to Chesapeake Beach, the town built by Gerald Donovan
By Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly editor emerita
Visiting Chesapeake Beach is viewing the dreams of Gerald Donovan, who died July 31, 2021, at the age of 72. On Saturday, he took a last ride along the streets he recreated past gatherings of mourners and friends.
As a long-time mayor, restaurateur and prolific dealmaker, Donovan reshaped his town in the image of the historic early 20th-century mid-Bay pleasure capital.
“Not his fingerprint, his entire handprints are all around the town,” said George Owings III, secretary of the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs and a former delegate representing the Beaches and Donovan’s lifelong friend.
Donovan was old enough to witness the slow demise of the town that lured Washingtonians—by steamboat, railway and auto. He was born too late to see the steam train huff and puff into the Chesapeake Beach Station. But its memory took on new life in the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum (1979) and the Chesapeake Beach Railroad Trail (2016), in collaboration with his successor as mayor, Bruce Wahl.
Born in 1948, Donovan heard the clinking of coins in slot machines. Long after slots were declared illegal, he enabled gaming through technicalities, satisfying players and the law with banks of electronic bingo machines. Nowadays, you feel like you’re in a casino, albeit a quiet one, in Chesapeake Beach’s Rod ‘N’ Reel.
Into the 1970s, he enjoyed water revels in the brackish, Bay-water swimming and diving pool, closed by age and racial integration. He revived those pleasures for people of all races in the Chesapeake Beach Water Park (1995) with its full array of 20th-century water delights: falls, slides and spouts, splash-you coconut trees, tubes, multiple pools and the Lazy River.
Donovan wanted everybody to have a good time, all swimming in the little pond that is Chesapeake Beach, where he was the big, generous fish, and the bigger the flash and splash, the better.
His roots ran deep. Donovan, who lived most of his life in Chesapeake Beach, was scion of a family that invested wisely and well in the town and its culture. When he returned from the Marine Corps, he had roots, opportunity and a place to spread his wings. His father, Fred Donovan, and maternal grandfather Wesley Stinnett owned two town restaurants. Together the two men had run the town as mayor for a full decade, Stinnett from 1954 to 1962 and the elder Donovan from 1962 to 1964.
“The first Stinnett’s and Rod ‘N’ Reel were small,” says Grace Mary Brady, local historian and founder of the Bayside History Museum. “All the places in town—whether Stinnett’s, Rod ‘N’ Reel, Abner’s, Chaney’s (now Mamma Lucia), Ewald’s, Franchi’s, or the Sea Breeze (now Trader’s)—started as small family-run restaurants that built their businesses in multifamily generations over the years, as families increased, improved and expanded what the last had built.”
Gerald was the visionary.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” reads a sign along the entrance to Rod ‘N’ Reel, quoting Harriet Tubman of Underground Railroad fame.
Year by year, Donovan and his team, led by wife Mary and their combined family, realized his dream of making Rod ‘N’ Reel bigger and better. Brother Fred’s fishing business attracted the region’s premier charter fishing fleet. Rod ‘N’ Reel remodeled with upscale dining rooms, panorama windows and Sunday brunches that filled bellies to bursting.
Topping it all, or so it seemed, Rod ‘N’ Reel became Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa with the opening of a beachfront hotel with swimming pool. A tiki bar took advantage of the beach, and Donovan recreated the old concert band shell so once again, nights were filled with music.
Palm trees mixed with historic murals, clever nautical touches (like fishing rods made into fixtures) and the occasional flashy sign set the style. Brides and grooms loved to marry there. Organizations staged galas.
The biggest gathering, for over 30 years, was the pull-out-the-stops Cancer Gala/Celebration of Life, thrown on the first Thursday of August by the Donovan brothers in honor of their father. Donors in summer finery feasted on 600 Maine lobsters, oyster bars, huge shrimp, jumbo lump crabmeat, sushi, and barbecue plus a whole floor dedicated to desserts. The American Cancer Society benefited by more than $5 million.
Donovan was generous to all sorts of causes, and if he liked you or your idea (especially if it had to do with history or service) he was likely to help you out, from Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum to the North Beach Volunteer Fire Department, where he was president for many years, to veterans to small businesses starting out in Chesapeake Beach.
He invested in politicians as well, in their friendship and in their campaigns. So he sat at the table when plans were advanced for development, infrastructure and gaming.
Donovan liked spectacle as well as size. Plan to see the town’s next Independence Day fireworks. It’s the town show, but the big patriotic illumination was another of Donovan’s babies, so Rod ‘N’ Reel does the honor.
Gerald Donovan was as devoted to building his town as to building his business. He was town mayor for 25 years (1983-2008). Under his watch, Chesapeake Beach bloomed. As Donovan’s holdings grew and diversified, the town also gained: a public beach, Bayside Beach; a boardwalk; Calvert County’s Northeast Community Center; Kellam’s Field; Veterans Memorial Park; the Twin Beaches Library; the waterpark, attractions all can enjoy.
“We got a more beautiful community from landscaping, signage, cleanliness, a water park, a Bay beach, a better environment for everybody to live in,” Donovan told Bay Weekly in 2011.
Among the improvements are a new stretch of Rt. 261, the roadway and bridge leading to the entrance of Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa. It’s a timely improvement as the resort, aka Rod ‘N’ Reel, is growing bigger and grander as yet another transformation reshapes the complex with a new restaurant, hotel pool and garage. The redesign, still underway, is Gerald Donovan’s brainchild and his legacy.
Come on down. Gerald Donovan has made it worth your while, all over again.