Silver Dunes remains a place where people are treated like family and feel a sense of coming home
Like the enduring palms planted on either side of a beautiful childhood paradise, Betty McHenry and George Noble have been human fixtures at Silver Dunes—Destin’s first condominium development—for 43 years.
In 1974, fresh from her first job selling seashells, 19-year-old Betty joined the Silver Dunes staff as executive housekeeper. She has risen at 5 a.m. daily, made breakfast and driven 40 miles from her home in Freeport.
Not one time in all those years can Betty remember calling in sick.
“It’s not the way I’m wired,” she says. “No, I don’t subscribe to that. I may have a cold, but I have never missed a day’s work and charged it to the company.”
Six months after Betty started, 23-year-old surfer George launched a beach service business that allowed him to spend time with his first love: the ocean.
He and the beach service both are still going strong.
George isn’t employed by Silver Dunes. An independent contractor, he owns all of his equipment, including chairs and umbrellas, and leases the land. He has as many as six employees at a time.
Like Betty, George doesn’t believe in missing work, but he does remember “taking an hour off here and there to go the dentist.”
Silver Dunes is like stepping back in time, in the best of ways. It is a family-friendly oasis where faces don’t change and hugs are given.
The gated 98-unit u-shaped complex has a heated pool, a game room, tennis courts, a basketball court and a grassy courtyard where children and adults run barefoot, playing all the way down to the pristine white beach.
Betty and George are as much a part of the Silver Dunes’ landscape as the clear blue water and sugary white sand.
Both are highly organized, believing in the power and productivity of routine.
Both credit parents for instilling a strong work ethic.
“My mother was a steadying influence,” Betty says. “With five children, she didn’t put up with any foolishness.”
Both are also beloved.
“Miss Betty,” as most call her, has shown up to clean toilets, scour sinks, pick up trash, mop floors and direct other workers for roughly 11,000 days. She did take three weeks off when her only son, Cary, died in a car crash at age 28. The determined woman has easily eclipsed baseball ironman Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive playing days.
She has watched four generations grow up, and remembers many fondly, though she does not name names lest she leave somebody out.
Betty is “a sweetheart and a hugger,” says Jim Curtiss, a 67-year-old dentist from Tennessee.
He discovered Silver Dunes in 1976 and became an owner in 2008.
“To me, Betty is an icon,” he says. “It’s like saying Elvis.” Say Betty, and “your mind immediately goes to one place: Silver Dunes,” Jim explains.
And George, “He’s loved,” adds Jim. “He knows where you are from, where you stay, who you are, your parents, friends. He’s a wealth of knowledge. He’s one of those people if you ask him what time it is, he will tell you how to build a watch.”
In perpetual motion, George’s wild blond locks belie his 66 years. He is an intelligent, articulate businessman and world traveler.
George glides across the sand like a border collie navigating field trial obstacles, with a sense of urgency in every move. He races the waking residents, setting up chairs and umbrellas, stopping only briefly—like a hummingbird hovering in place—to talk with people wanting to engage before darting off.
Although he uses sunscreen, his weathered skin looks more lizard than man. Wearing a shirt isn’t practical on hot, humid days, he says.
George has yet another hole to dig with a drill and giant auger—another umbrella to shove into the sand, or credit card to process. It’s a routine one might think would get old after four decades.
“You don’t see me wearing a suit and tie!” he responds, skidding his bare feet across the sand and looking out lovingly at the turquoise water—a dear friend he has known most of his life, and knows better than people. “I’m not working inside. I can’t do that.”
Debbie Pittman has spent most every July at Silver Dunes since she was a teen. The retired elementary school teacher was raised in New Orleans and now makes her home in Georgia.
The tradition was started by her father to keep the family together, even though it meant saving all year and borrowing to make it happen.
“I have always felt full confidence being on the beach when George is there,” Debbie says. “He could tell by looking at the waves or the clouds what’s coming. When he takes your umbrella down, you know the weather’s changing. And he remembers your name and all your people.”
“If nobody at Silver Dunes showed up for work, all the guests would say everything is alright as long as George was there,” says Pam Miller, community association manager of Silver Dunes the past 16 years. “He is there seven days a week from March 1 through October 31. In the off-season, he leaves and cruises. He can’t get enough sun.”
On December 29, Miss Betty folded her last towel and cleaned her room. She turned in her keys and retired.
“Betty will be missed,” Pam says. “She’s family. We’re a family-friendly property. There will be a void.”
“I’ll probably take a year and cry,” Betty offers, half-kidding. “I will miss the routine because my life is very orderly. I may fall through the rabbit hole or something.”
While Miss Betty’s tenure is over, George has no plans to slow down.
“Maybe I’ll quit and just travel the world if I win the lottery,” he says.
Nobody is buying it.
“We think the world of those people,” says Debbie’s husband, Larry. “They are just good people.”