The ‘M&M’ grandmothers of Vienna

By Brice Stump, Special to Dorchester Banner 
Posted 1/3/23

For almost 15 years, two women have patrolled the eight streets in Vienna as code enforcers, bringing law and order to this quiet town on the Nanticoke River.

Each Monday is set aside for them to …

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The ‘M&M’ grandmothers of Vienna

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For almost 15 years, two women have patrolled the eight streets in Vienna as code enforcers, bringing law and order to this quiet town on the Nanticoke River.

Each Monday is set aside for them to ride ever so slowly around town, looking for code violations, such as junk cars, debris in yards, overgrown lawns.

Mary Jane Marine, 83, and Phyllis Murphy, 91, “M&M,” are “The Enforcers,” grandmothers who work for the town. For those who count on the duo to keep the town tidy, the weekly routine gives them a chance to wave as Murphy and Marine make their rounds.

Even though they tour the town in Marine’s personal vehicle, people recognize them right away, but just to be official and all, Marine attaches a removable Code Enforcement sign she affixes to the driver’s side door. “No need really,” she said, “everybody knows who we are.”

Lucy, Marine’s border collie, rides with them, softening their official presence and delighting residents working in their yards or walking their dogs. Passers-by in cars wave to the two.

The grand tour takes less than half an hour as they look things over.

It also gives them an opportunity to chat for a few minutes, weather permitting, and catch up on local news and a tidbit or two of ever so discreet gossip.

“Years ago, Phyllis knew everyone, I mean everyone, in town and their circumstances. It was perfect,” Marine explained.

“Yes, we knew everybody,” Murphy said, “and the joke was that I could give you the quarter tour or the 50-cent tour of the town. For the quarter tour, I could tell you who lived in every house. For the 50-cent tour, I could tell you what they had for supper last night. It was a joke, but almost true.”

They learned to recognize the few new faces and names as residents seem to come and go faster than they were accustomed. Then ever so slowly, the laid-back, easy-going persona of the town of about 300 residents changed.

For M&M, keeping the town visually appealing and tidy is more than a job, it’s a noble mission.

When Route 50 was rerouted years ago, a new road and bridge were constructed a few hundred yards north of town, it meant all major traffic that had flowed through the town suddenly bypassed the community.

While it killed almost all business opportunities here, it also meant Vienna would remain a small neighborhood, one without stoplights and blaring horns and rude motorists.

There is no town policeman, and serious crime is almost unheard of in this corner of Dorchester County.

The town Murphy has known for almost a century would retain its character as a slow-paced riverfront community. Kids could still ride their bikes safely about town, people could have a leisurely visit with the postmaster and neighbors at the post office on Market Street.

Farmers, watermen and townspeople could also exchange pleasantries at Hebron Savings Bank on the corner of Market and Race streets.

If ever there was a bank that was dear to a small community, Hebron Savings is it. The bank has been a much-coveted business and social icon in Vienna for decades and residents take great pride in the friendliness of the bank’s staff.

There are three churches, Millie’s Road House Bar and Grill — the iconic local watering hole, the Pie Place and the Shell Station, the town’s only gas station and Bunky’s automotive repair shop, all on the wide road that folks still call “old Route 50,” that ends at the river’s shoreline.

The late town mayor, Russell Brinsfield, was effective in not only preserving the essence of Vienna over the years, but brought enough of the “right kind” of changes to add contemporary appeal for residents and visitors.

Murphy and Marine are old school, witnesses to a time of their youth so much different from today’s world. People wanted to keep their yards tidy, their fences painted, their houses appealing. It was just expected of a good neighbor and a good citizen. There is more to life than a cell phone, an electronic umbilical cord to the internet and social media. There’s being a good neighbor.

Marine and Murphy see themselves as living proof that the Vienna of old really does exist. They are direct links to those days of unlocked doors, neighbor helping neighbor and genuine patriotism to community and nation. This is “old Vienna.”

Marine loves her hometown of Sharptown, but her heart is in Vienna.

The Enforcers make a perfect team of good cop, bad cop, diplomacy and frankness, patience and a short fuse.

“Phyllis,” Marine said with laughter, “is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of person and she’ll tell ’em.”

Marine, a laid-back, easy does it, no fancy frills kind of person contrasts to Murphy. “Every day she always, always dressed up,” Marine said fondly of her friend. “She's a take no prisoners kind of person.”

“We got things done,” Murphy said. She doesn't have patience for the new crowd’s “anything goes, we’ll get to it later, it doesn’t really matter attitude.”

“The attitude of the town and commissioners,” Marine said, “is that we want to work with everybody.”

That’s “old school Vienna,” a way of life that is being watered down by changing times. “Just because the town is small and off the beaten path doesn’t mean it’s a wild west, anything goes community,” Marine said. “I try to reflect that old Vienna attitude of working with people.”

Not only have they carried the banner of tradition and responsibility, they do their job with common sense, and old-time grit.

Sure, landowners have ordered the two off their properties, only to have the code enforcers examine the property from another neighbor’s yard.

“I’m a ‘backyard looker.’ See all kinds of stuff,” Marine said.

“When I get to the door and knock, some people won’t answer, they know who it is knocking. The word is out, they know my car; had the same Blazer since I've worked for the town.”

Grandmotherly types

“Yes,” Marine admitted readily, “some people don’t like us, but they will have no finer person easier to work with than me. How could people not love us two grandmotherly types? Phyllis and I have a ticket book and are committed to not writing a single one. We aren’t going to slap a fine on you. We want to be a neighbor helping a neighbor.”

How many have they written in 15 years? “None and don’t want to,” Marine quipped, “We have been very successful working with residents.

“They can solve their code violation problems in 30 days, pay a fine or end up in court. Rules are rules. But most everyone complies. I go out of my way to make sure people can comply. It’s for the betterment and safety of the town and residents. I’d say 99 percent of the people here cooperated with the rules.”

But, oh, that one percent that doesn’t make life tough for the code enforcers.

Murphy and Marine have years of experience as code enforcers, and it looked like Murphy could go on until she was 100.

Then, within the past few months, Murphy made the decision to sell her home, leave town and move in with her son Bernard, in Kent County.

Marine knows Murphy’s absence may not be immediately sensed by residents, but her leaving brings the community closer to a change of character. And should Marine retire, “old Vienna,’ will certainly slip away.

“I’m 91, lived here all my life near town or right here. For 70 some years I lived in this house,” Murphy said.

Strong filtered sunlight passed their sheers at the window, warming blue curtain panels as white light came through and warmed the carpet.

Murphy sat in a wooden kitchen chair looking through the window towered cupula sitting near her yard. It was saved from the roof of the old Vienna High School when it was torn down decades ago; it's now the centerpiece in the park-like lawn by her yard. It is a memorial to Old Vienna.

She was a student at the school and eventually the librarian.

Sitting in her living room, reduced to two chairs and piles of disheveled papers, she watched as sons Patrick and Bernard carted furniture to their pickup and packed her lifetime into boxes.

Dishes rattled in the kitchen, and Murphy’s conversation paused as she looked around the room. She has never been 91 before, she said, and this change wasn’t coming easy. She’s been in town in the same house for 70 years. And she’s never had to say goodbye to friends before.

“I graduated from high school right over there, in 1949. It was a memorable year,” she said, smiling. The town office sits over the site of the old high school, visible from her living room window.

“I graduated on Monday and got married on Saturday. My mother pushed me into gettin’ married because she said I wasn't going to sit around the house all summer doing nothing. To me, getting married was the lesser of two evils because I wasn't qualified to go to college.”

The newlyweds found a small single-story house near Drawbridge. It had no running water or bathroom, a culture shock for Murphy who thought maybe getting married wasn't the lesser evil.

 “Momma told Murphy’s sister, Jenny, to hit the road, too, and enrolled her at 16 in Easton Hospital’s ‘nurse’s training’ program.”

She was the youngest student ever admitted. “But she graduated as a RN,” Murphy said.

Then a pause in the conversation as Murphy looked toward the window.

Shadows in the room became darker as the afternoon sun grew older, and fell on Murphy’s shoulders and back like a soft, gray-colored shawl.

Marine took in the scene with personal and professional reserve and dignity, it was evident in her eyes that she was uncomfortable and unsettled by it all.

Back in her office, she volunteered bits of emotion. “What must it be like to sit there and watch your whole life being packed up in boxes and stacked in the back of a pickup?” she asked, knowing it was a rhetorical question that dared not be answered.

“We are losing a big part of the history and character of the town of Vienna with Phyllis moving. She was born and raised right here in Vienna. She’s so dedicated to the town but she doesn’t want to go through another winter in that big three-story house again,” Marine explained.

Out of the code enforcer army of two, Marine just lost 100 percent of her troops. It is not a good day for Vienna.

Even though Murphy won’t be physically here, she’s surely involved spiritually. Marine has an upper chin attitude as she soldiers on, presses forward, alone. It’s what’s expected of old-time mettle.

Marine is a dynamo, constantly on the go, always in command, always in gear to handle whatever comes her way. She’s been the code enforcer here for 15 years. She retired after 27 years from her post, first as zoning analyst and finally as zoning administrator/ code reformer for Wicomico County.

She’s got the experience to carry on alone, but she will miss Murphy, professionally and personally. The reality of life, of inevitable changes, will take an emotional toll.

“Phyllis always had a passion to serve Vienna. She gave her heart to the town. Never missed a meeting all those years,” Marine said.

“I gave 100 percent to Vienna,” Murphy volunteered. “Don’t give me a plaque, don’t need a plaque,” Murphy said with laughter.

“She always took her responsibilities so seriously,” Marine said.

By the time she closed her front door for the last time, Murphy had also resigned from the planning commission, because, by the end of the day, she was no longer a town resident.

“Even though she was 91, she was still working for us until she and her sons packed up and left. Mentally and physically, she was still right on top of things, but she just couldn't stay here,” Marine said, in a soft voice.

In the open and large single room of the town office, Marine plugs along, the tabletop all but covered in layers of letters and documents relating to town business.

Every few minutes or so, the phone rang. Town water supply had been disrupted without notice to the office, and from her window she could see a small team of men doing road work.

Callers fill her in on what’s what, and she pieces together details of the operation at hand. The phone was ringing so often that she bypassed the typical “Vienna town Hall” greeting and jumped right into conversation with “We don't know when the water will be back on for sure, but someone said about 10 minutes.” One irate caller advised her she was in the middle of a shower when the cascade of water suddenly became a drip. Marine apologized and updated the caller.

A resident came in to notify her in person of the water shutdown and added more details about the work crew’s progress.

Marine was obviously miffed that no one gave her a heads-up so townsfolk could be alerted in advance. Murphy, on the other hand, Marine said with laughter, would have been given the crew “what for, right quick.”

Murphy was zealous in her civic duty to be a good steward of town business.

“When the previous clerk died, Phyllis as town commissioner and on the planning commission, jumped in to take up the day-to-day business operations of Vienna as town clerk, and that included the zoning division.”

As a commissioner, she hired the first code enforcement officer. “All of a sudden there were new rules and regulations, ordinances, that we hadn't had before,” Murphy said.

“Talk is people don't want to buy a house in Vienna because it’s too restrictive. But you get what you pay for, so to speak,” Marine said.

“If the ordinance says you have to keep your grass cut when it gets above six inches, we enforce that. Another ordinance says there can’t be any untagged vehicles in the town, and we make sure there aren't any here unless they get special permission.”

They enforce the nuisance ordinance as well when residents call to complain that piles of trash in their neighbor’s yard is conducive to fostering rats and other undesirable rodents. Some issues are simple common-sense rules of etiquette.

“One man had piles of crab shells in his yard stinkin’ up the neighborhood. What kind of person does that? We write a letter explaining our concerns and those in violation usually take care of it,” Marine said.

“The town has a good grass ordinance. If they don't cut overgrown lawns in seven days after being notified, boom, the town will hire someone to cut it and the cost will be applied to their tax bill.”

Attentive foxes

Some wrongly assume the two “grandmother-types” are pushovers.

First word of advice: Don’t try to pull the wool over the eyes of these attentive foxes.

As Marine was leaving the town office one summer evening, a man drove up and got out with an orange-colored violation notice citation in his hand.

“I told him had to get his grass cut. He told me, ‘Yeah, but I don't get home until 6 and can’t cut it.’ And I told him, ‘You know what, sometimes I don't get home until after 6 p.m., but I cut my grass.’ When I went to check on his yard a few days later, the grass was cut.

“Looked like he cut it with scissors, but it was cut. He didn't want to cut it, but he did. I found out later he told a friend of his, ‘That lady that works for the town is tough.’”

Tough is the word. A town eyesore that got out of hand real fast needed fast action and Marine was the lady of the hour. “The place was a dump, it was a total junkyard,” she said of the yard.

Marine told the elderly owner, on numerous occasions, that the car in the yard had to have valid tags or had to be put in a garage or it was going to be towed.

He ignored her repeatedly until she showed up one day with the tow truck operator. “He was furious with me, shook his cane at me and yelled ‘I hate you! I hate you!’” Nevertheless, the car went off.

“I know people go so far as to call me a bulldog, even a Nazi. Imagine that.”

Talk about tough skin.

“I don’t let it get to me, or take it personally,” she said. “I understand why some people really don't like me, but it’s my job. You can’t have a junkyard in a municipality.”

One out-of-town property owner with a “dilapidated building” fights every effort that Marine makes to diplomatically get him to follow the rules. Every now and then he nails up a board or two to suggest a “good faith effort” to comply.

There are two houses in town she won’t go to by herself. “Not that I’m worried about being physically assaulted, it’s that I just don’t like the verbal abuse,” she said.

Yet being abused verbally by some of the people they serve is part of the job.

“It’s the worst case in town,” she said of a longtime offender. “One day I went over there to discuss multiple code violations, and his wife and son were in the yard, too. The boy may have been 12 or 13.

“The mother and father cursed me, then the boy cursed me something terrible, never had a boy talk to me like that before in my life and the sad part was he did that with his mom and dad standing right there beside him. I didn't say a word to the boy, but all of them cursed me,” Marine related.

“The boy was well trained, by his father,” said Murphy, who also had a history with the homeowner and family.

“I know people call me all kinds of names behind my back and I’ve had people curse me to my face. Bad words,” Marine said, shaking her head, still in disbelief.

“People can always criticize when they aren't helping,” said Murphy.

Marine noted that the new year marks the end of an era for Vienna.

“It’s going to be so different. Phyllis had some much institutional knowledge and now that is all gone. But I’ll carry on because we both love Vienna.”

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