Helen Haffert lived decades of Sea Isle City’s history. And she loved that history enough to spend decades preserving and spreading it.
Haffert died last month, at 92, but she and much of her family — which included her late husband, Horace, and six kids — almost didn’t survive one of Sea Isle’s key historical events, a 1962 storm that ravaged the town and most of the local coast.
Helen and Horace and their four youngest kids tried to ride out the storm in the family-owned Surfside Hotel, just off the beach at 50th Street. And they were confident enough that they actually invited other family members to stay with them.
But son Pat Haffert, 13 at the time, remembers the ocean “breaking the (beachfront) bulkhead into splinters.” Shortly after, “The building lurched forward on a 15-degree angle. ... It was like ‘Titanic,’ with dishes flying out of cabinets, people thrown to the ground. My father told my mother, ‘Take the children and run,’” adds Pat, now 62.
Outside, “The water was waist-deep for adults” — but neck-high on his brother, Greg, then 6. Still, the family managed to find shelter in neighbors’ homes.
In spite of living this “run-for-your-lives story,” the Hafferts didn’t give up on Sea Isle. They rebuilt as soon as they could, although they did move back to the bay, near the home of Horace’s father — former Mayor William Haffert Sr.
Helen’s own family links to Sea Isle ran deep too. A great aunt was a founder in 1905 of the Women’s Civic Club — which lost its home to that same ’62 storm. And in 1930, when Helen’s father, George Felix, won $1,000 in a raffle at his Philadelphia church, he used that huge windfall to buy his family a Sea Isle home.
Helen and Horace met at a Boardwalk dance — in the historic era when the town actually had a Boardwalk, not the paved Promenade of today.
“They were just two young people starting out in Sea Isle,” says their oldest child, Mary Anninos, 72. “She knew nothing — and she ... got involved with everything.”
One of her many volunteer spots was the Sea Isle City Historical Museum, where Helen apparently made a bit of history by recruiting the museum’s youngest volunteer ever — her then-teenage granddaughter, Caitlin Haffert. Now 25, Caitlin knew and loved Helen as her Nana, but she admired her as a local-history guide.
“She loved people stories, she loved hearing stories and telling stories,” Caitlin says. “When visitors came in, she wouldn’t just say, ‘Here are the dates and here’s what happened.’ To her, it was all a grand story. And the way she did it, she really made you feel connected to Sea Isle.”
Helen Haffert certainly had the credentials, historical and personal, to do that.
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