Emeritus professor’s book recalls a childhood home that vanished into the sea

Joseph G. Burcher taught at TCNJ from 1962 to 1991 and helped develop the early childhood education program.

South Cape May, NJ, the beach town that defined Joseph G. Burcher’s childhood, no longer exists. By 1946, relentless storms had reduced South Cape May, now a bird refuge, to sand and varied debris.

Joe, a TCNJ professor from 1962 to 1991, has fashioned a fitting tribute to the place he loved: Remembering South Cape May: The Jersey Shore Town that Vanished into the Sea. The book, a collaboration with Joe’s son-in-law Robert Kenselaar, examines the town’s 51-year history and features Joe’s colorful first-person memories—beachcombing, observing rumrunners, his mother’s ingenuity as a cook and tailor—of living there. It also includes numerous photographs, some from Joe’s collection.

Since the book’s release last summer, Joe, who divides his time between Cape May and Haddonfield, NJ, has received coverage from The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and NJN. And the book has sold well: As of mid-December, Remembering South Cape May was in its second printing. The attention surprises Joe, 87, who quips, “I’m amazed anyone would publish this damn thing.”

Whitney Tarella, the commissioning editor for New Jersey at History Press, the book’s publisher, had no such reservations.

“I thought it was a really unique story (not often that an entire community washes away), and that it was important to document it from the perspective of someone who had lived in South Cape May, who loved the community, and remembered it well,” Tarella says. “Too often we wish that we had first-hand accounts of places and events in the past, and this was an opportunity to preserve those memories.”

The book and its success is arguably the result of a magazine writer’s oversight. When Cape May Magazine ran a story on the extinct town in 2006, no one interviewed Joe or his surviving siblings. “It was a nice article,” Bob remembers, “but I thought, ‘Why didn’t they talk to Joe? He lives right across the street from where South Cape May used to be.’” Joe’s vivid stories, Bob thought, could yield a book. So the men visited “the old beach”; Joe talked while Bob followed with a tape recorder. From there, it grew. “It was nothing planned or preordained,” Joe says.

Bob, 56, a longtime employee at the New York Public Library, organized the transcripts, researched the town’s history, and took photos of surviving houses (which were moved to safer ground). Both credit each other for the book’s success. “He’s the ultimate organizer, director,” Joe says of Bob. “But it’s your story,” Bob counters.

For Joe, one of the town’s last surviving residents, that’s a sad fact: “I look at my grandchildren and I want to cry because it doesn’t exist anymore.” He knew everybody and could safely roam around town, but Joe recognizes that “it’ll never be the same, and maybe that’s a good thing because it was very difficult times.” The Burchers’ primary residence in South Cape May had no sewer system and featured few conveniences, save for a Kerosene stove. When Joe wasn’t on the beach, he was working a series of unglamorous jobs, including cutting neighbors’ lawns with hand scissors.

Joe’s time at TCNJ, where he helped develop the early childhood education program, was just as memorable. “I had so much fun [there],” says Joe, who happily shares warm remembrances of bosses, coworkers, and classroom escapades.

The stories are so good they could be published. Any takers?

4 Responses to Emeritus professor’s book recalls a childhood home that vanished into the sea

  1. My name is John Lindsay and I am an alumnus from ’82. I had Joe Burcher as a professor and went fishing with him off the Jersey coast. I would love to reconnect with him. Could you provide him my email address johnlindsayiv@yahoo.com or provide his email address to me? Thank you.

  2. I would love to connect with prof Burcher. Sadly I was already deeply involved in the Special Ed program at TSC when he came aboard, so I never got to meet him. That is, unless he came to Wappalanne in the fall of 1963 with my group. Since I spend a week every summer in West Cape May, I would love an opportunity to meet him. Is it possible to forward my email address, so I can contact him? bjagins@gmail.com TSC name – Barbara Comiskey, class of 65.

  3. Mr Burcher was the biggest highlight of my TSC experience as an ECE major! Loved him, what a character! I still talk about him to this day!

    Eileen Bowker Rafferty
    ECE
    ‘88

  4. Joseph Burcher inspired me to be the best teacher I could be! I took a Saturday workshop he happened to offer several years after college, and he said, “Lynn, I feel like I am back at TSC with you in my class!” It was a great workshop, and all my classes with Prof Burcher truly prepared me for my teaching career. Thank you, Mr. Burcher, so very much. And, by the way, I love my visits to the Cape May area each year…so beautiful! It would be lovely to see you again!!

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