For Jeff Mullen and Tom Quintin, Ocean Beach Park is a perpetual reward
Nowhere in his autobiographical novels did Thomas Wolfe write about the joys of salt-sparkled sea air. Or summers as a kid at a powdered-sugar beach, with carnival rides and mini-golf and a boardwalk and ocean-going ferries easing past into a sun-glow horizon.
If Wolfe had grown up in New London, though, and had access to Ocean Beach Park, he'd absolutely have gone home again. Maybe he'd have never left.
Such are the realities for Jeff Mullen and Tom Quintin, local guys whose childhood memories, decades ago, of visiting Ocean Beach are so formative and indelible that they're now on site in year-round fashion — not just because it makes them happy but also for the purpose of making the place more attractive to visitors.
"I used to come here as a kid. I used to hitchhike here on Sundays from Norwich when I was 12 years old." On a late spring morning shortly before Ocean Beach Park opens for another season, Mullen is seated at a picnic table near the waterslide and amusement rides — integral elements of the OBP experience that's he's overseen and maintained for 22 years. He also owns the Ocean Beach arcade, which he bought from original owner George Tattersall in the mid-1990s.
Ocean Beach Park, one of the remaining New England-style beach attractions, was built in 1940 after the Hurricane of 1938 destroyed the shoreline and nearby neighborhoods. It's a staple that draws locals and tourists from all over the region and the Eastern Seaboard. Through up and down periods and a few instances where the park's very existence was in question, Ocean Beach has maintained a steady and loyal following.
Thinking back on his childhood visits, Mullen says, "I'd go to the same spot every week, next to the food stand. I just liked it here. The sun, sand and water ... there was a lot going on back then for a 12-year-old guy."
At the same table is Mullen's good friend, Quintin, who recalls a similar early affection for the park. "The first time I was here, I was 6," he smiles. "My mom used to take me down to the beach with a friend of hers and her son, and we'd have a good time playing in the sand and go into the water — but not too far because it was kind of cold."
Chores of joy
From Quintin's perspective, facing away from the beach and toward the parking lot, one can do a slow-pan and view numerous projects that literally have his fingerprints all over them. There's the stone, handicapped accessible trail that links the park's Gateway Garden and Observation Park to the nature park and reserve. There are custom built welcoming and information signs — built by hand from scrap — that lend a consistent aesthetic as well as the clocktower on the mini-golf course and, basically, too many maintenance nuances to count.
"What we do is a year-round labor of love, not just between Memorial Day and Labor Day," Mullen explains. "You come down here in the dead of winter and Tom and I are here, working on things and trying to make it a better place to enjoy."
Quintin's happiness at the park as a kid translated into summer jobs there from the time he was 16 through college. He started cleaning restrooms and sweeping the boardwalk and then, as his adept way with all sorts of electrical, plumbing and carpentry work became known, his responsibilities steadily increased.
"I don't think I realized from when I was a kid that I would work here," Quintin says. "I mean, yes, it was magical and special, but that I'd spend years here just because I want to improve the park? Not back then. But when I DID start working here, I enjoyed it in a significant way." He laughs. "Clearly."
Destined for the beach
In conversation and action, Mullen and Quintin are softspoken and polite men. Their affection for the beach is resonant in their voices, just as they're quick to share credit with volunteers or the crew of Mullen's Action Amusements.
Quintin studied electrical engineering in college and had a 30-year career as a contractor in the defense industry. He traveled a lot, including to waterfront locales like Norfolk, Virginia, and Seattle, and he's vacationed in Cancun. Despite the variety and acclaim of the beaches in such places, he never found one he liked as much as Ocean Beach.
During his years as an engineer, he continued to visit the park and became active in Save Ocean Beach, a volunteer organization formed in 1995 dedicated to maintaining and upgrading the park. It was incorporated as a non-profit group in 1999 and, over the years, has conceptualized and completed a variety of projects from the Children's Playscape and Spraypark to an observation platform, nature walk, helped rebuild the boardwalk and lifeguard stands, installed all manner of practical and ornamental improvements, and so on.
"All through the years, my job wasn't really satisfying, and Ocean Beach was my outlet," Quintin says. "I'd do jobs at the beach and, eventually, I was able to go to (park manager) Dave Sugrue and say, 'I think this or that needs to be done,' and he'd let me because he knows I'd never do anything to hurt the park." Quintin now works for the City of New London maintenance department, but his off-hours devotion to Ocean Beach Park is, like Mullen's, more than full-time in terms of hours invested.
Mullen, whose Action Amusements company continues to be his mainstay career, and who spent years as owner of the Bank Street Café, one of the premier live music clubs in the area, similarly looks upon the beach as a source of comfort and fulfillment. It's one of the reasons he annually opens the 22 carnival rides to families of the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
"How do you figure you'd have the chance to do something like this when you're 12 and can't keep from coming back?" Mullen asks, a note of happy wonder in his tone. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would run an amusement park like this." He sweeps his arm to indicate the rides he's acquired and, with his crew, painstakingly refurbished from across the country over the years. "One of the great things is that there's always something you can do to make the park better. That's what's important."
Sugrue, who has run Ocean Beach Park for years, says he considers Quintin and Mullen "gracious and remarkable men — two of the kindest and most cpable people I have ever met. Each has dedicated himself to the continuation and betterment of Ocean Beach Park. They both truly find purpose in improving people's lives."
Given the views and sun, sea 'n' sand sensations in close proximity, it's interesting that there are days on site when Mullen and Quintin don't even see the beach or the sound.
"Oh, yeah, that's definitely true," Mullen nods. "That's OK. We know it's there. There's always that great fresh air and the smell of the ocean. Sometimes I'll just take a walk down the boardwalk and it always makes me happy."
"I haven't sat on that beach in many years," Quintin laughs. "I did plenty of that when I was young. Once my role became one of the caretakers of the beach, that's enough. Jeff and I make stuff out of nothing, basically. There's satisfaction in doing that so the public can enjoy this place. I don't do it for myself."
The park is now open and will rock full-throttle till September, then the seasons change and the cycle wends its way once more.
"My favorite time at the beach is actually before Memorial Day and after Labor Day," Quintin says. "It's calm and quiet and you can hear the ocean crashing against the shore. It's beautiful, just beautiful."
Mullen, too, enjoys the solitude of the off season. "It's so quiet and you have the time to appreciate the natural qualities," he says. "But it's all for the betterment of the park. We have something here very few people have. And when the park's full and you see the smiles on a kid's' face? I see that and think, 'That kid? That was me.'"