Four feet of snow fell on Shepherdstown in January of 1996. When the snow started to melt the rains came. Meredith Wait and Debbie Dickenson's down-river home off Canal Road came complete with a little stream running by, and in this kind of weather that wasn't a selling point.
NOAA had predicted flooding that day so Meredith and Debbie packed up everything on the first floor, just in case. At two o'clock the next morning, the rains were pounding down and the river was rising. Awakened by the sounds of a Tsunami, they made a run for it. Meredith, behind the wheel of their van, and Debbie, in their old Toyota, headed down the road to higher ground. Trouble followed them. Meredith looked in her rearview mirror and saw that the Toyota's headlights were underwater. The defroster wasn't working and Debbie had opened the door to melt the ice on the windshield so she could see. The river was now in her lap.
Within a half mile of home, the road was gone. They stopped in front of the gun club. The gate was locked. They tried to break the lock with a crow bar. No luck. With the electricity out and people in higher homes asleep and unaware, the two left their vehicles and headed back to the house. Now it's not wise to wear a down coat if you're going swimming and soon the one Meredith wore weighed a lot more than it had when she put it on. As she was sinking under the weight of her coat she remembers seeing two mice swimming by a little cat sitting on a gate and then jumping into the river and disappearing. The water was knee-height and hypothermia was setting in.
Meredith Wait with ‘Sadie’
Meredith remembers saying "I'm not going to make it." And Debbie saying "I'll be damned if you're dying here," as she scooped her up and started carrying her. They made it home and found the river inching its way into their kitchen. For the next four hours everything that wasn't bolted down was carried upstairs. The water began pouring in at 7:00 AM, crested at 2:00 PM, and began to recede.
"The next day we went to Betty's for breakfast. " Meredith recalled. "The place was very crowded. We couldn't make it past a booth without people offering shelter, food, clothesanything they could give and doand they all meant it." How did they know," I asked. She smiled and said "Word travels fast in Shepherdstown." Their home was a pile of mud, they'd almost lost their lives, things looked bleak but help kept coming forward. Meredith remembers "Betty Wang (China Kitchen) kept giving us food." Meredith laughed at this. "Every time I'd see her she'd try to feed me, every time. " "Betty Osborne (Betty's) did the same. We could always find a place to sit and rest and eat. Fire Chief, Lee Morgan was always out at the house. He'd just show up and work. " This outpouring ... an apt word, consideringof help and caring came from all corners and went on for the six months it took to get their neighbors back to the starting gate. "Folks couldn't have been kinder to us. It was pretty amazing."
Meredith recalled this time in response to the question "What do you think is it about Shepherdstown that makes it so special? " Her final answer"the people who live here."
Contrary to popular belief, Meredith Wait is not a hometown girl. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut where Patricia McCrary Wait and Robert Wait lived with their three little girls - Patience, Meredith and Annabelle.
Robert was a corporate lobbyist who was becoming more and more in demand and by the time Meredith was in high school Robert had moved way up the ladder and his family had moved seven times. The Waits moved from Hartford to Stowe, MA, to Pepperell, MA, to Ridgefield CT, to Bridgewater, CT, to Rockville MD, to Shenandoah Junction and finally to Shepherdstown. "My dad was really good at his job and when we moved to WV it was because General Foods had hired him to lobby for them in Washington. He was their first lobbyist in DC and it was the time of Watergate. He told great stories." Great stories or not, any kid will tell you, switching schools every other year is the stuff of which nightmares are made.
Meredith wound up graduating from Jefferson High and then went back to Connecticut to study history and political science at the University of Connecticut. To finance her education, she was painting houses in Wilton when she fell off a ladder and injured her backbadly. Instead of resting to heal as the doctored ordered, as soon as she could walk she returned to the house to finish the job. "I needed the money." She explains in one of those 'how stupid can you get' voices. "I painted for ten minutes and then would rest for ten minutes. I'm just lucky I didn't cripple myself for life." The injury took a serious toll. Meredith dropped out of U. Conn. and returned to Shepherdstown to recuperate.
Meanwhile, her parents' twenty-nine year marriage had come apart. According to her daughter, Patricia reinvented herself. She became involved in politics and went to live in DC and work on Capitol Hill for Maryland Congresswoman, Helen Bentley. Meredith moved into the Yankee Barn that her parents had built in 1979. Patricia came home on weekends. "My Mother designed most of this house," said Meredith of the home she and Debbie share today, "and she loved trees. I remember cranes lifting sections of the house onto the foundation so that none of the trees would be touched. She drove the builders crazy." The result is a wonderful place nestled among mature trees but designed to maximize the sun - as it rises, as it sets and as it shines.
Meredith says massage therapy "gave me my life back. " And while she was healing she painted. "Dave Rowland owned a graphic design company in Hagerstown and saw one of my pastels in my therapist Sunny McWhinney's office and called me. He offered me a job teaching in his art department." Dave also offered to teach Meredith desktop publishing and graphic design.
In 1990 Meredith struck out on her own and was designing the tourism magazine, Panhandle Guide for Mary and John Lehman. This was a full service assignment which included distribution to all the congressional offices in Washington, DC. "I also sold advertising for the magazine and if I do say so, I was good at it. I was flying by the seat of my pants and really like exploring the panhandle and meeting and talking with all those shop owners. It was a great way to learn the retail business." By 1991 Meredith had a nice roster of Shepherdstown clients: Joanne Kartley of the Village Finery, Jan Bender of the Village Green, Richard Jentsch of Sanguine Gryphon and designer Keith Knost.
In 1991, at a Shepherdstown Business Association meeting at Sylvia Ellsworth's Meredith met Debbie Dickenson. New in town, Debbie was a noted potter from Baltimore. Debbie traveled to shows all over the country selling on the national scene. She also owned and operated a shop on German St that housed her studio. This wasn't working out so wellfiring pots out the back door and holding down the front of the store was becoming increasingly difficult. Meredith was in search of office space and the two struck a deal. "The first time Debbie and I talked seriously about renting office space she was sitting in front of the shop with her head in her hands. The plumbing had just backed up and the store was flooded. She looked like she could use a friend." The friendship was strong from the beginning. As Meredith said "She was someone who was heading in the same direction as I was. " Eventually the two became business partners and life partners. "I could see a future with Debbie. I could see a life." With it's friendly charm and exquisite creativity, Dickenson & Wait has been a must stop for tens of thousands from all over the world for the past nineteen years.
Meredith was first elected president of the Shepherdstown Business Association in 1991. "Businesses in town don't have a vote because they're not residents. I always felt we needed a group presence to speak with one voice to the mayor and town council. The entrepreneurs are pretty independent but despite our differences there are strong similarities--We all have a great sense of community, we all want to make money and we've all chosen to do business in a small town." In the past 18 years Meredith has worn every hat at SBA.
From the beginning of this century til 18 months ago the economy in Shepherdstown was good and the necessity of SBA took a back seat. In 2008, things changed. SBA elected a new board of directors, and Meredith Wait was once again president.
Meredith found it intriguing that 90% of the Shepherdstown business community wanted the SBA to continue but only 10% showed up at meetings. To insure a strong business community, members had to be united and supportive. So she called on all businesses "to become active in some capacity, to make it all happen."
Her work on SBA and as a member of the Vistors Center Board reinforces her observations that "Frederick, Cumberland and Carlisle, PA have all turned themselves into charming little towns and folks are going there to spend money," she said. "We can't just expect people to choose Shepherdstown to shop like they used to. We're all competing for the same dollars. We can't take anything for granted." Of today's SBA, Madam President said, "We are reenergized and refocused and there's a new strengthening of our relationship with the college and the town." "I'm very encouraged about the future."
Since 2004, despite her success, multitude of friends and very good life, Meredith has had more than her share of sad days. First she lost her little sister Annabelle, then her Mom in 2007... and in 2008, her beloved, Aunt Ilene. "When someone has been so much a part of your life for fifty years and one day they're gone, it's very difficult. And when it happens again and again, it's devastating." Words failed both of us.
But it is a good life, with Debbie, and their horses, Sadie and Tommie, insane Border collie, Jack and the cats: Jesse, Missie and Pumpkin. As we walked by the gardens and the paddock with views that give reason to West Virginia, Meredith laughed and pointed to a small orange cat trotting along side her big old BFF. "Pumpkin follows Tommie around all the time." The entire scenic situation is an oasis. It's that peaceful.
Meredith Wait is one of those people about whom others say "Isn't she great." Everyone seems to know her and like her. She has this wonderful way of listening and remembering. And whether you're a customer or a new friend or both, she let's you know what you say is important. This quality when packaged with a ready smile and contagious laugh make for a winning combination.
I have always had this theory, backed up by nothing but my opinion, that you never really shake the place in which you were born. Meredith Wait was born in New England and it's this New England DNA that has rendered her besotted with a little farm in Erving, Massachusetts. Every summer she, Debbie, Sadie, Tommie and Jack, pack up the horse trailer and head north to a place where they plan to retire somedaybut not today. Today Meredith Wait belongs to Shepherdstown and what a beautiful day it is.
- Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and Emmy Award-winning screenplay writer