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David Fynn hears a call coming in on channel 13 of his marine radio. A boat is hailing the Elizabeth City Bridge, asking the operator to raise the drawbridge for

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David Fynn hears a call coming in on channel 13 of his marine radio. A boat is hailing the Elizabeth City Bridge, asking the operator to raise the drawbridge for

David Fynn hears a call coming in on channel 13 of his marine radio. A boat is hailing the Elizabeth City Bridge, asking the operator to raise the drawbridge for passage. From the floor-to-ceiling windows of his condo above the Pasquotank River, Fynn can see the bridge and the boats gliding in on the shimmering water. He grabs a goody bag containing coupons to area businesses, a visitors’ guide, and a local map, and heads downstairs to Mariners’ Wharf, where boats bob next to the wooden docks. When this latest vessel arrives, he’ll help the boaters tie up their lines, give them the goody bag, and maybe even offer them a ride to the local grocery store.

Rose Buddy volunteer Dave Thomas welcomes boaters to Elizabeth City

For more than 40 years, volunteers like Dave Thomas (right, in 2008), have welcomed boaters to Elizabeth City. Photography courtesy of Museum of the Albemarle

Fynn is part of a group of Elizabeth City locals known as the Rose Buddies, which got its name from the flowers that members used to give to incoming boaters in the 1980s. While they no longer hand out actual roses, Fynn, Dan Smith, and Barry Keyes continue to act as ambassadors to the city. Smith has even been known to offer the keys to his truck. If the Rose Buddies really hit it off with the newcomers, they may share a meal together and keep in touch long after the boaters have set sail for other harbors. Their efforts are part of why Elizabeth City is known as the Harbor of Hospitality.


One Sunday morning In 1983, After attending a service at First United Methodist Church in downtown Elizabeth City, Fred Fearing and Joe Kramer decided to walk down to the wharf and spend some time with the visitors docked there. Fearing’s wife had died the year before. Maybe he was lonely; maybe he was looking for something to keep him occupied. For his part, Kramer snipped some roses from his yard and presented the long-stemmed, ruby red blossoms to the ladies aboard the vessels. The pair also hosted a wine-and-cheese party at the newly constructed docks.

That first impromptu gathering was such a hit that Kramer and Fearing decided to continue greeting boaters with roses and wine. The blooms made a big impression on the boating world, and the two friends came to be known as the “Rose Buddies.”

In 1983, Joe Kramer (far left) and Fred Fearing entertained visiting boaters during one of their first wine-and-cheese gatherings at Mariners’ Wharf. photograph by Museum of the Albemarle

Fearing lived just five blocks from the docks, which he could see from the street outside his home. If he counted at least five boats, he and Kramer would host the party at the waterfront. If there were fewer than five, Fearing would invite the visitors to his home.

After Kramer’s death in 1987, his rose bushes were transplanted to the waterfront, where they overlook the sparkling blue of the Pasquotank River. From there, Fearing continued to clip them and present them to female boaters.

Not many people are still living who remember Kramer. An article published in The Daily Advance shortly after his death described him as someone who “liked a good joke. He could turn a room full of listeners into a chuckling concerto.” His obituary heavily emphasizes his work as a Rose Buddy.

A monument dedicated to the Rose Buddies at Mariners' Wharf in Elizabeth City

A monument at Mariners’ Wharf tells the story of the first Rose Buddies. photograph by Baxter Miller

There are plenty of folks who still have fond memories of Fearing. He was passionate about local history and invited Don Pendergraft from the Museum of the Albemarle to come down to the waterfront and share information about the history of the region. The two would either transport the boaters to the museum or Fearing would bring his own collection of antiques — colonial artifacts that he had inherited from his ancestors — to the waterfront and tell stories about them.

While Fearing himself was not a boater, he and Pendergraft would give boat tours of the area, passing Machelhe Island, Chantilly Bay, and the former shipyard — still in operation as a marina at the time — and ending at Mariners’ Wharf. There, they would point out parts of the Elizabeth City skyline: Christ Episcopal Church, built in the Gothic Revival style; the 1927 Virginia Dare Hotel and Arcade, the city’s only skyscraper; the brick smokestacks from the timber industry, since torn down. Along the route, Pendergraft shared historical details, and Fearing regaled passengers with colorful stories and local lore.

“He had a big personality,” Pendergraft says of Fearing. “He’s one of these people that could walk into a room and fill it up just by being there. He had a big laugh. He was very friendly, very courteous to everyone.” All traits that made Fearing the perfect ambassador to incoming boaters.

Rose Buddies drive visitors around Elizabeth City in a golf cart

Rose Buddies often drove visiting boaters around town in a golf cart. Photography courtesy of Visit Elizabeth City

After Kramer’s death, other volunteers started helping Fearing, and word of the Rose Buddies spread worldwide. Elizabeth City earned the nickname Harbor of Hospitality, and the story of the group was told in boating magazines across the country — maybe even around the world. Famous people who docked at Mariners’ Wharf came to know Fearing and the Rose Buddies. Walter Cronkite was a frequent visitor, stopping in town as he traveled the Intracoastal Waterway. After docking in Elizabeth City and seeing all the wine, cheese, and artifacts that Fearing had to lug to the waterfront, NBC’s The Today Show weatherman Willard Scott gave him a golf cart. Locals started to associate Fearing with the cart, and he liked to use it to show visitors around town, recommending restaurants and local businesses along the way. “He tried to spread the love of Elizabeth City,” Pendergraft says. Along with many of Fearing’s artifacts, the cart is now in the collection at the Museum of the Albemarle. It’s displayed in the lobby from time to time.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton wrote a letter to Fearing after hearing about the Rose Buddies from a friend. “This is a wonderful demonstration of kind hospitality for boaters who come to Elizabeth City,” the president wrote. “And I’m sure a number of interesting friendships have developed as a result of the generous spirit of you and other ambassadors there. Keep up the good work.”


Fearing remained a Rose Buddy until his death in 2007 at the age of 93. He got to the point where he could barely see or hear, but he continued to greet boaters, rain or shine. “If there were parties to be had, Fred would be in the middle of it,” Pendergraft says.

Other volunteers took up the mantle of the Rose Buddies after Fearing died. Penny Leary Smith volunteered with Fearing during her time as director of the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center, which may be the only welcome center to greet visitors by both highway and waterway. “It was very rewarding,” Leary Smith says of her experience as a Rose Buddy. “The boaters were so complimentary. You have to remember that when [boaters] are on the water, they don’t have resources to get and do things in the marinas. This offered them so much.”

“This is a wonderful demonstration of kind hospitality for boaters,” Bill Clinton wrote.

Today, David Fynn, Barry Keyes, and Dan Smith carry on the tradition that Fearing and Kramer started more than 40 years ago. Fynn and Keyes both live on the waterfront beside Mariners’ Wharf. They greet boaters there when they hear on their marine radios that a vessel is hailing the Pasquotank River Bridge from the north, or when they look out their windows and see one gliding in from the south. Smith is retired from the nearby Mid-Atlantic Christian University and greets boaters who dock near the school, which sits just north of the bridge.

Unlike Fearing, the three are avid sailors. And all three are transplants to Elizabeth City. Keyes recently completed a 5,000-mile sailing trip along the East Coast. That experience — plus meeting Fred Fearing himself many years ago while docking in Elizabeth City on his way to the Bahamas — helped Keyes realize how beneficial it is to pull into a new harbor and have someone help tie up lines and offer local information. He started greeting incoming boaters when he moved to the waterfront five years ago. “It makes a big difference to find friendly people,” he says. “So I wanted to pay some of that back.”

When a vessel pulls in, the three help the boaters find things they need: showers, water, diesel fuel, a laundromat, a hardware store to pick up a fan belt or an oil filter. They recommend restaurants like Hoppin’ Johnz or Sagos on the River, or The Kraken for a good cup of coffee, or Juniper for a craft cocktail.

View of the Elizabeth City waterfront from on top of Seven Sounds Brewing.

Visiting boaters find a picturesque waterfront and a friendly welcome in the Harbor of Hospitality. photograph by Charles Harris

Along with local information, the welcome bags that the Rose Buddies give to boaters include a pink enamel rose pin — a nod to the beautiful blooms that the group once shared. Visitors are invited to wear the pins as a symbol of the city’s appreciation and gratitude, while locals wear yellow rose pins to symbolize joy, friendship, and new beginnings. When visitors see a local sporting a yellow pin, they know that they can approach that person to ask questions about the area.

Fynn, Keyes, and Smith hope that the Rose Buddies’ reputation will lure boaters to plan their routes so they dock in Elizabeth City, helping local businesses and promoting town growth. “We want everybody that goes north or south through North Carolina to come this way through the Dismal Swamp,” Fynn says.

Kramer’s rose bushes still grow along the Elizabeth City waterfront, and the three hope that with proper pruning, they will again produce roses that will welcome visitors for years to come. In the meantime, word of the Rose Buddies continues to spread worldwide. When Smith travels to other ports and tells boaters that he’s from Elizabeth City, he’s often asked, “Do you know the Rose Buddies?”

“Well, yes,” he says. “I am one. Come see.” The invitation is open to all: Come see Elizabeth City, the small town with big hospitality.

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This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.