Charlie Rowan, of Mays Landing, rides the Cape May-Lewes Ferry in 2006. Rowan was a regular rider on the ferry, often catching the first ride in the morning. The shark hat is one of a number of festive hats he was known to wear regularly.

Staff photo by Dale Gerhard, April 19, 2006

His family called him Pete Rowan, but most outsiders called him Charlie.

And even a lot of people who weren’t sure who he was had a name for the Mays Landing man: “the hat guy.”

Before he died last month at 71, the hat guy had a special model for almost every occasion. He had Santa hats for Christmas, bunny hats for Easter, a bird hat to visit the zoo and a shark hat if he was around the water — including some of his beloved weekly rides on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. But he also liked to wear his crew hat on the ferry, because he took that trip so often, the real crew made him an honorary member.

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Bryan Helm, of Ocean City, knew Charlie for 24 years on the ferry. He said the workers looked after Rowan, and gave him a duty they always knew he’d take very seriously.

“We’d say, ‘Charlie, when we get to Lewes, it’s really important that (the dock attendant) gets the line fast,’” said Helm, now the ferry’s port captain in charge of marine operations. “So Charlie would yell down, ‘Get the line! Get the line!’”

Pete/Charlie lived with his older brother, Bill Rowan, 72, in Mays Landing, for 20 years, after Pete and their mother, Marion, moved out of Atlantic City, where Marion raised four boys and two girls. And despite the fact that Pete was “mentally challenged,” his brother said, Pete held a job for 21 years cleaning buses for NJ Transit, after starting out cleaning the old Atlantic City Transportation Co.’s trolleys.

On ferry-riding days, Bill would get up at 5 a.m. to drive Pete to the terminal in Lower Township. Pete liked to ride the first ferry over to Delaware and the first boat back, but he had to catch a bus home to Mays Landing from Cape May. That day could add up to 13 or more hours of travel, his brother said. But Pete never complained about that — or about anything.

“He was an exception,” Bill said. “Pete never hurt anybody or had a bad word about anybody.”

If he wasn’t riding the ferry, he probably was taking the bus to the Hamilton Mall or the Shore Mall, where he was also a minor celebrity.

“We used to give him a ride on the carousel every day,” said Maryanne Conahan, the Hamilton Mall’s customer-service manager. “He’d sit on the bench seat, and he just enjoyed his ride.”

Every December, he’d get a picture taken with Santa. Every spring, he got a new picture with the Easter Bunny.

Those characters weren’t the only ones dressed up for the shots.

“Charlie had a furry bunny hat for Easter, and a turkey hat for Thanksgiving, with drumsticks,” Conahan said. “But I think my favorite was his Hershey’s Kiss hat. It was all silver, and shaped just like a Hershey’s kiss. I can’t imagine where he found all those hats.”

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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