Bill Carpenter loved Cape May

Bill Carpenter was 2 the first time he went to Cape May. His last trip was shortly before he died last month at 88.

And he made countless visits in between, from homes as far away as Arizona. He never lived in Cape May, but he never stopped going, and he made sure to leave his mark on a town he loved.

"Cape May was such a constant in their lives," Sue Carpenter Priester said of her father, Bill, and mother, Pat, who died in 2008. "So it was for the rest of the family too."

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Take Priester, whose main home is in Greenville, S.C. but who also owns a house in Cape May. In her family, that's not just a summer place. It gets used year-round.

She traces her family's Cape May history to her dad's parents, who discovered the town when they lived in Philadelphia in the early 1900s, and kept going after a move to Pittsburgh.

There were other beach towns in the family's life. When Carpenter married Pat Eldon in 1947, her sandy roots were in Cape Cod, Mass. Priester, 63, has memories in Ocean City, and she knows her parents used to love Wildwood's music scene.

"The other big thread in daddy's life was music," Priester said. "He played the drums from high school on. ... Jazz was his big passion, but he also loved classical."

His favorite Cape May jazz spot was the Merion Inn, where local legend George Mesterhazy played piano for years, until he died last year at 59. Carpenter used to get his family - including his younger daughter, Jane Valdes-Dapena - together for Mesterhazy's shows.

Carpenter "was there about the music," said Vicki Watson, the Merion's owner and Mesterhazy's life partner. He liked to sit right by the piano - and hush his family as the band played.

In his professional life, Carpenter retired as vice president of corporate relations at Pittsburgh Plate Glass. In that job, "Daddy got to know a lot about corporate philanthropy," Priester said, which leads to how he left a legacy in Cape May.

"He and my mother set up a small foundation," Priester said. "And the (Carpenter Family Foundation's) largest gift was to the Cape May Music Festival."

Now Michael Zuckerman of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities - the nonprofit group that runs the music festival, and many other Cape May cultural activities - picks up the story.

"He donated $75,000 to the music festival," said Zuckerman, who calls that "by far the largest gift ever to the music festival - and the largest gift that's crossed my desk in 30 years at MAC."

So at the music festival's second George Mesterhazy Tribute Concert last week, the band dedicated a special song to Mesterhazy - and to another important figure in Cape May music circles, Bill Carpenter.

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