"Mr. Ocean Beach" Tony Pero dies at 97

New London — Anthony "Tony" Pero, the gregarious New London native whose stewardship at Ocean Beach Park spanned five decades, died Monday morning. He was 97.

"The beach has always been a part of my life," Pero told The Day in 2005. "Sometimes I think folks have taken it for granted, but it's a wonderful place — a family place — and, along with the Coast Guard Academy, one of two things I think New London can always be proud of."

The love for Ocean Beach Park was apparent from a young age; Pero would reminisce about taking the trolley there.

Born in 1921, Pero served in World War II as a ship-fitter for the Navy in the South Pacific. In 1946, with a starting salary of 60 cents an hour, Pero began his career at Ocean Beach Park as captain of the lifeguards.

He was then promoted to activities director, a role that involved recruiting musicians to play — including big jazz names such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and country acts like Loretta Lynn — and school groups to use the beach for parties.

The Musicians Association of Eastern Connecticut recognized Pero for his efforts to bring live music to the beach, and Pero was inducted into the New England Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Hall of Fame.

"You didn't have a casino around then, so he not only utilized the beach part of it; he also utilized the nighttime part of it, with a big tent," said Rob Pero, Tony's youngest son and a longtime former city councilor.

Rob Pero also cited his dad's role in the celebration of a multitude of cultures at Ocean Beach Park, between providing a place for Dick Pillar's 11-day Polkabration, putting on Italian and Greek festivals, and holding Caribbean nights.

He said that "at birth, it was kind of indoctrinated in us that you have a love of Ocean Beach," and he grew up following his father and siblings to work with various concessions.

"I guess if I ever wanted to have a first boss, that was a great person to have a good experience, it would be Tony Pero," he said.

He recalled that his dad offered to mortage the family home to fix the Ocean Beach pool at a time when the city was under tough financial times — something that didn't make his late mother too happy — but the city eventually funded the improvements.

For Pero's daughter Judy McAuliffe, a favorite memory was suddenly hearing her name while walking on the boardwalk, and looking up to see her father whispering her name into the intercom.

He liked to tease people: When McAuliffe put on green eyeshadow as a teenager, Pero told her he thought her eyes were turning moldy, and when asked, "How'd you sleep last night?" he responded "In the bed."

At the beach he ran a tight ship, she said, but was well-respected and would always ask, "Is there anything you need?" upon departing a conversation.

Mayor Michael Passero was director of lifeguards in the early 1980s, and recalled Pero as being warm, calm in crises, and understanding, important traits when managing a staff with a lot of teenagers.

"He just inspired everyone else to love [Ocean Beach Park] as much as he did," Passero said.

The annual Silly Hat Parade is held in his honor, and the city dedicated the boardwalk at Ocean Beach to him.

Pero served as manager of Ocean Beach Park until 1988, when he retired — but certainly didn't stop working. He worked at the former Birch Plain Golf Course in Groton until he was 90.

Pero was heavily involved in the community outside of his work at Ocean Beach; he was part of the Lions Club for more than 50 years, served as board president of the chamber of commerce, and sat on the board of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.

Active in tourism promotion, he was named the first member emeritus of the Eastern Regional Tourism District.

The current manager of Ocean Beach Park is David Sugrue, who has worked there for more than 30 years.

"As teenagers we all worked for him; as adults we all respected him," Sugrue said of Pero in 2008.

Pero is survived by sons Rob, William and Patrick Pero; daughters Judy McAuliffe and Colleen Pero; 12 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Mary Pero, and son Anthony Pero Jr.

The funeral is planned for Friday; the family will announce further details in a  forthcoming obituary.

e.moser@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the anecdote about fixing the Ocean Beach pool.

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