The Beachcomber

Storied Island Writer Spans the Centuries

Author Margaret Thomas Buchholz: Passionate Historian
By J.D. WATSON | May 24, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Margaret Thomas Buchholz

Harvey Cedars — On a spring day, the fog hung heavy over the beach in Harvey Cedars. The wind, although howling, couldn’t clear the beach of the mist. The wind, the wind, the never-ceasing wind. A solitary figure walked the strand, hunched over against the wind, scanning the sand for remnants, memories of what had once been but had been scoured by waves and sand and wind, left to be found, found by someone with eyes enough to see.

A few blocks west, on the bay side of the Island, in a small, unassuming house with a spectacular view, Margaret Thomas Buchholz greeted a visitor with a smile and an apologetic handshake. “I’ve had this cough I can’t shake,” she said. Despite her recent cough, her alert eyes still twinkle, eyes accustomed to catching small details.

Sitting in the living room of the house in which she was raised, Buchholz was surrounded by memories. “I’m very sentimentally attached to the house,” she said. “It doesn’t look anything like this (originally). Roof was the same, kitchen is in the same place, all that.” Referring to built-in bookcases – filled with old books, befitting a researcher and historian – on the wall facing the water, surrounding a bay window, “That was built in at that time, but the house ended here.” She gestured at a long-gone wall, before an addition or two came later. The house, like the woman herself, has a story to tell.

Much of the story has been known to locals. Indeed, to longtime residents of Long Beach Island and readers of The Beachcomber and The SandPaper, much of the story will be familiar: born to parents Reynold and Josephine Thomas in Manhattan’s Park East Hospital; brought to Long Beach Island just in time to be evacuated by the Coast Guard in a November 1935 nor’easter; raised in Harvey Cedars during the ’30s and ’40s. Away at college, then back for summers on LBI, where she began working for a new publication, The Beachcomber. Love, marriage, business endeavors, children, loss – a story like many others. But the difference lies in the details.

Her father, who would eventually become mayor of Harvey Cedars, was the latest in a long line who had Island ties. “My father’s forebears had founded the town (of Harvey Cedars),” Buchholz wrote in Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife, her book taken largely from her mother’s letters and diaries. Her dad’s family had been coming to the area since 1833. “(His) roots in New Jersey go back to 1677, when (his first ancestor) emigrated from England with the Quakers who followed William Penn.”

Upon first meeting Buchholz, the stories immediately surround her. They become readily apparent in the number of names by which she has been known. A famous (locally, at least) family name, two marriages, and then there is that nickname.

“I hated it,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I was told I had a German nursemaid when I was a baby, that I was a little poopschein, a little doll, poopschein. But I don’t know, that sounds like a fabricated story. And I don’t know who even told me that. But all I know is that my mother’s letters refer to me as Maggie, or Meg, when she wrote home to Michigan. And then by the time I was 2½ or 3, it was all Pooch. Poochy.”

As Buchholz wrote in Josephine, “Unfortunately, my father won the battle of what nickname to call me, as I would have much rather been Meg or Maggie than Poochy.”

And that nickname has stuck – so much so that it now adorns the license plate on her car.

“Well, I gave up,” she said with a shrug.

But that wasn’t always the case. “I went to high school and said I didn’t have a nickname. And I had a sweater with birds on it and someone said, ‘Oh, she’s a birdbrain.’ I was called Birdy all through high school, Barnegat High School. And then I went to college, said I didn’t have a nickname. Somebody-or-other said, ‘Let me call you Tommy.’ I said, great. Margaret Thomas. And I was ‘Tommy’ all those years.”

She still gets emails from long-ago friends addressed to Tommy or Margaret. “Different people from different eras. I answer to all of it,” she said.

Newspaper Career?

Well, Start Humbly

“In June 1950, a journalist named Donald Craig had started a seasonal, weekly newspaper on Long Beach Island called The Beachcomber,” Buchholz wrote in Josephine. While in college, she would return in the summer, and eventually got a job selling advertising for The Beachcomber.

“I returned each summer through 1954. Mommy, of course, pushed me toward the newspaper job and told me how much salary to ask. ‘Tell him you want $50 a week,’ she said. I did. And got it. A good salary for a summer job.”

Her job grew to include turning out copy when needed, writing captions, writing a story lede, scaling photographs, laying out the paper – everything she would need “to put a paper ‘to bed’ each week.” They would be lessons that would pay off soon enough.

Buchholz explained, “Bill Douglas was the editor at the Beach Haven Times. We met, fell in love, got married.” Working for rival papers, the two had known each other professionally. In Josephine, Buchholz described her husband as “talented, bright, and sometimes a bit crazy in an endearing way.”

After five years of running The Beachcomber, Craig had developed the paper into a popular publication and a viable business. But the owner’s wife had grown frustrated with the hectic seasonal schedule. “She said, ‘I’ve had enough of this back and forth. Get rid of it.’ He worked in New York and just ran for those summer weeks. And so, he said, ‘Do you want to buy it?’ And I said, ‘Buy it?’ And Bill said, ‘Buy it? Yeah, we’ll buy it!’” Buchholz explained.

“And he was going to stay on at the Beach Haven Times and run that and keep his job there (he was ad manager), and I would run The Beachcomber. Well, that lasted about four weeks. He couldn’t own The Beachcomber and sell ads for the Times. Even though it was a fairly friendly competition, it didn’t work.”

So the young couple were the new owners and publishers of a weekly newspaper.

For Buchholz, “1955 was a landmark year: I married, bought this newspaper, built a house and had a son. My mother, Josephine Thomas, wrote ‘Sand in my Ears,’ ‘Vacation Cooking’ and ‘Green Thumbs.’ My brother, Mike, covered the lifeguard beat. My Aunt Dorothy Thomas wrote ‘The Island-When-I-Was-A-Girl’ pieces. My husband, Bill Douglas, wrote ‘Beachcombings.’ And I was advertising manager – after excusing myself to attend to morning sickness, I sold a half-page for the summer. Sympathy, I think. It was a very busy year.”

It happened that 1955 proved to be an opportune time to purchase a business on the Island. The newly completed Garden State Parkway led to an explosion in real estate development in Ocean County. New houses, whether renters or year-round residents, meant readers.

Less than two years later, Buchholz’s life would never be the same. In April 1957, her husband killed himself. He had been drinking, and they had been in an argument. It got physical, and he left in a drunken rage. From Josephine, Buchholz described the next morning.

“I remember for some reason that I had on a pair of khaki shorts and a striped, sleeveless blouse. As I looked out the living room window, I saw my father and brother as they walked in harmony across the street and into my yard. Their heads were bent; their bodies drooped. I called out the open door. They looked up. Their faces were set, grim. My father had been crying. My father never cried. I knew they were going to tell me something terrible. That picture is clear in my mind, even now, although what followed is lost. I don’t remember who spoke or what they said, only my response: ‘Oh, my God! My poor children!’ The police found Bill’s body on the beach. The same beach where I’d played as a child, where we swam in the summer. He shot himself with the gun he used to shoot the ducks.”

Owner-Publisher,

Of Necessity

A month after the funeral came Memorial Day and with it, her first issue of The Beachcomber. “I had no choice but to pull myself together,” she wrote. “I had two babies and a business to run. I just had to get on with it. In 1957, there was no time to mourn, to weep and wail, to try to understand, to dwell on what had happened.”

She wrote that when she learned mental illness ran in her husband’s family, “it took some of the burden of guilt from my shoulders.”

Unfortunately, she would revisit those feelings as both her daughter and granddaughter would commit suicide.

And yet, she survives. “I think it must be my nature: positive and optimistic.”

She also credits her father, to some degree. “I remember when my brother died suddenly in an accident in the ’60s. Wes Andrews was the police chief here, and I said, ‘I’m really worried about Daddy, with Michael dying.’ And he said, ‘He got through the World War. He’ll get through anything.’

“Work has helped save me, too,” she said.

The work: the cyclical repetition of years upon years of publishing a seasonal, weekly newspaper. For over 30 years. Through another marriage and a divorce. Living in Philadelphia, New York, California. And always returning.

Then in the mid-’70s, a ragtag bunch of college kids came to Long Beach Island with ideas about opening a new newspaper, with fresh graphics and extensive photography. They coexisted as happy rivals for a few years.

The Beachcomber was the big summer weekly and The SandPaper was this scrappy upstart,” according to Ray Fisk, the associate editor and photographer for The SandPaper back in those days.

“(Buchholz’s) office was richly furnished and had collections from her travels and her family. There was a large, antique chair in her office. It seemed like a throne,” Fisk said, describing the impression such a display made on the young photographer. “This must be, on the Long Beach Island scale, what it’s like walking into Katharine Graham’s office at the Washington Post.”

But after more than three decades, Buchholz no longer felt the urge to continue.

“When I was getting ready to sell the newspaper, when I found out that my son wasn’t interested and that Curt (Travers, SandPaper publisher) was going year ’round with The SandPaper and I didn’t feel like, after 35 years, competing and going year ’round,” she said, she considered deals to sell to the Asbury Park Press and the New York Daily News. But then Fisk, who by this time was also freelancing for The Beachcomber, suggested she talk with Travers.

That sale went through, with the happy side benefit that Buchholz stayed on at both publications.

Beanstalk Seeds

For Future Author

Sometime thereabouts, a woman came into Buchholz’ office with a pile of material. “When I had the Beachcomber office back on 21st and Central in Ship Bottom, some old lady had come in and handed me this old notebook. But she had clipped storm stories in, from the early part of the century up through the ’50s, maybe. Did I want it? I said, ‘Sure, thanks.’

“I have no idea who she was. I could never acknowledge her.”

But the natural-born historian in her kept the file. And one slow winter a few years later, Buchholz approached Larry Savadove, a writer at The SandPaper, about a collaboration. Savadove agreed.

Buchholz approached Fisk, who by this time had started Down The Shore Publishing, an independent publishing house specializing in Jersey Shore subjects, including a popular trilogy of history books by John Bailey Lloyd. Fisk agreed to the project, which took up much of the next two years.

The two writers found they worked well together, despite the fact that Buchholz, well, wasn’t really a writer. But she was a researcher.

“I didn’t consider myself a writer. I never was a fiction writer, but I always liked research. Even from college, I liked research,” Buchholz said.

“She is a natural researcher; that’s where she shines. Finding a little gem in a pile of old letters. And with Great Storms (of the Jersey Shore, 1993), she found her next career,” Fisk recalled.

In an interview shortly before his death, Savadove described their working relationship. “She did all the hard work, and that allowed me to play,” he explained.

It was Buchholz’ job to do the research, to find the original stories. “I went to every library, every historical society, up and down the coast. It was great fun. From little town to little town,” she recalled.

“We were working down at his house; he lived in High Bar (Harbor) then,” Buchholz recalled. “I never forgot: He had a single couch with piles of paper all spread out. I’d bring him the stuff and he’d sort it into what he thought the chapters would be.

“We worked fine together,” she continued. “I did my job and he did his. I always sort of deferred to him because I felt he was a better writer. He had more experience. He was a very good writer.”

Fisk reinforced that notion. “Larry was an amazing writer who just poured out polished copy” – but sometimes to excess, Buchholz noted. “He was hell to edit because he overwrote,” she said.

“When I was editing his columns in The Beachcomber, he said the same thing three ways. I would just take out two or one, and just leave it. He never said a word.”

Fisk challenged Buchholz’ assessment of her own writing ability. “Pooch wrote the 1944 part of the Great Storms. Her enthusiasm is infectious. In the early ’90s, people remembered pretty vividly the ’62 storm. And some remembered the ’44 hurricane, but those stories were fading. And nobody had been through a storm like that. This book brought back all of those very gripping accounts.”

Still, the partnership between the two worked. The pair were interviewed at a New York radio station after the book was published. Even the radio host recognized the unique relationship. “He said that he’d never found two people who worked so well together on a joint interview,” Buchholz recalled.

Great Storms is currently being reworked as a second edition, according to Fisk. “Today it’s moved into another generation. Scott Mazzella (author of Surviving Sandy: Long Beach Island and the Greatest Storm of the Jersey Shore) wrote a huge section of the new edition on Superstorm Sandy, and updated some of the other weather events. It even has an afterword on climate change and sea level rise,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gilbert M. Gaul. The new edition is expected in August.

After that book’s success, Buchholz published others as writer or editor: New Jersey Shipwrecks: 350 Years in the Graveyard of the AtlanticShore Chronicles: Diaries and Travelers’ Tales from the Jersey Shore; Island Album: Photographs and Memories of Long Beach Island; The Long Beach Island Reader. She also contributed an essay to Four Seasons at the Shore: Photographs of the Jersey Shore.

Then, her father passed away, and she stumbled upon the makings of her next book.

“The letters were in there,” Buchholz said, motioning to a window seat in her house in Harvey Cedars. “It was after my father died and I started sorting through things in the ’90s that I found them.”

Those letters, plus diaries found in the attic, led Buchholz to write Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife, a memoir of her mother’s life and her own early childhood.

On the success of Josephine, Fisk said, “I think Pooch has an enthusiasm for finding what’s interesting in others’ historical accounts.”

No Island tale would be complete without a mention of the one that got away.

“I remember the summer she died,” Buchholz said. “I remember my mother sitting back in the bedroom looking through papers, tearing things up, and throwing them away. I didn’t realize what she was doing. And in her diaries and in her letters, there was a lot of redacted material. Cut out, crossed out. Things cut out, snip, snip, snip, snip.”

In April, Buchholz was awarded the Pauline S. Miller Lifetime Achievement Award for Ocean County History, thanks to her “enormous contribution to the recorded past of Ocean County and the New Jersey shore.”

Closing the Book?

Another day, and the wind is still blowing down the foggy beach. Another solitary figure searches the strand, looking for treasures.

Buchholz was asked if she is still writing.

“No. Because I don’t feel like it.”

Later, fearing she may have been too flippant, she clarified, “I have been working with responsibilities for most of my life, and I want to be irresponsible now. But if Ray Fisk said I could do another anthology, I’d jump at it, as I so enjoy the research.”

Here’s hoping she gets the chance to research, and write, more stories.

J.D. Watson is a former staff writer for The SandPaper.

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