Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams’ Hope (and Plan) for Change

As a rookie cop on the city’s South Side in the ‘70s, Williams confronted crime head-on. As mayor, nothing changes.


Published:

photo by Michael Sahadi

Dennis Williams made his bones as a rookie cop on the mean streets of Wilmington’s South Side.

In 1976 the area around A and B streets—near the river—was something of a war zone. That’s where the former center fielder and cornerback for P.S. duPont High School, all of 5-9 and 145 pounds, pounded a beat alone, his weapon and his radio his best friends. Often, before he left the police locker room to begin his shift, he would hit his knees and pray.

“Guys laughed at me all the time,” says Williams. “But you know what? I’m still here.”

The rookie proved to be a quick study. In less than two years, he had made detective. One of his partners, Marty Hageman, remembers Williams’ passion for his hometown.

“You’re in the car a lot,” says Hageman, now director of Downtown Visions, “getting from point A to point B—wherever your investigations take you—and Dennis would sometimes say, ‘I would really like to be the mayor of this city someday.’ And I would ask him why, and he would say, ‘I’d really like to make a change. There’s so much that needs to be done that isn’t done, and it’s  not coordinated.’” 

The partners were close friends, says Hageman, “So of course I would tease him and say, ‘Oh, Den, you’ll never be mayor.’ But he somehow felt he would. It was like a dream to him.”

On his 60th birthday—Jan. 8, 2013— that dream came true. Williams was sworn in as the 55th mayor and the first native-born Wilmingtonian since Bill McLaughlin (1977-84) to assume that office.

Crime was virtually the only issue in the mayoral campaign, not surprising for a city that was labeled “the most dangerous city in America” by Parenting magazine.

The ex-cop was given a clear mandate (and an endorsement from the State Fraternal Order of Police), easily winning the five-person Democratic primary, which is tantamount to election in Wilmington. He rolled to a 25,000-vote margin in the general election.

He enters the office after serving continuously in the Delaware House of Representatives since 1995, when he won a special election to fill out the term of Orlando George Jr., who resigned as representative of Wilmington’s First District to become president of Delaware Technical Community College. In a district of 21,000 residents, Williams won that first election over Republican Karen Miller by a count of 1,757 to 897, and has been unopposed in every general election since except in 2008, when he crushed Republican James McClain Jr.

If, as Hageman says, being mayor was always Williams’ dream, the obvious question is, why did he wait so long to seek it? The answer reveals the shrewd politician who always seems to be dressed in a suit and tie.

“When you have good political sense,” Williams says, “you don’t want to take incumbents on, you look for the open seat, and that way you don’t ruffle a lot of feathers either. Timing is everything.”

Williams takes over for three-term Mayor James Baker, who couldn’t run again due to the three-term limit. Despite Baker’s bizarre behavior during his last year in office, he worked well with Williams’ transition team, and the new mayor hit the ground running, making key appointments a day after the election. He named the city’s first female police chief, Capt. Christine Dunning, a 26-year veteran, to replace Michael J Szczerba. For fire chief, he picked Anthony Goode, who was promoted from battalion chief to replace Willie Patrick Jr.

Williams, the father of three girls, has said his administration will include “younger people and females.” At one press conference, he said, “The day of the grouchy old men in the room is over.”

Among his other appointments were Alexandra Coppadge as communications and media relations director and John Matlusky as chief of staff. A 2010 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Coppadge has worked as a television and radio reporter and as a constituent relations liaison in Gov. Jack Markell’s office. She is the daughter of Family Court Judge Arlene Minus Coppadge. A former Republican national committeeman, the 44-year-old Matlusky was a policy attorney and chief of staff in the state House of Representatives.

Matlusky went to work in Dover in 1997 and met Williams soon afterward. “I was impressed with him,” says the Salesianum graduate. “One thing I liked was that he’s a decisive leader. A lot of politicians will say yes to everybody, or they’re good at kicking the can down the road. There are times when you’ve got to say no. Dennis has an ability to do that more than a lot of other elected officials.”

Matlusky believes Williams has the ideal résumé to be mayor of the city of 72,000. “Besides his police background, he has experience on the budget side of things,” he says, referring to Williams’ co-chairmanship of the powerful House Joint Finance Committee and chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee in the General Assembly. 

A financial grounding will come in handy for a mayor who faces a $5.5 million deficit and a struggling business climate. 

Williams appears not to be intimidated by the economic challenge. “As chairman of the JFC, I had an $800 million deficit four years ago. I got out of that nonsense, and we’ll get through this.”

During the campaign, he said his first act would be “to conduct a top-down review of city government and audit the books,” in an effort to “eliminate waste, fraud and abuse.” While that may save some money, it’s doubtful it will make up a significant portion of the deficit. That in turn raises the possibility of increased taxes, which Williams claims is a last resort. “I think city residents have been taxed enough over the last 12 years,” he told The News Journal.

The business community representsanother possible revenue source. Months before he took office, Williams formed a Business Roundtable of 35-plus members. He says they will serve as “a sounding board for new initiatives to grow business and jobs in the city.” He contends that businesses have been frustrated with the city’s regulations and bureaucracy, both of which he hopes to reduce. Matlusky is more direct. “Over the last few years, I think there’s been a little bit of alienation with the business community in terms of dealing with the city.” He says Williams is “more customer-friendly” than the previous administration and views both businesses and private citizens as “customers, not constituents.”

Fellow Democrats control the power in county, state and federal offices, and Williams has reached out to them, seeking alliances—particularly around crime issues. He says the city may share resources, including police, with New Castle County, which is once again under the direction of fellow ex-cop Tom Gordon. And in mid-November, the new mayor and Matlusky went to Washington for meetings with the Department of Justice and other federal agencies. The meetings were arranged by Sen. Chris Coons.

Says Matlusky: “You’re going to see a lot more collaboration between Wilmington and the U.S. Attorney and the state Attorney General’s office and some federal agencies, which hasn’t been happening [recently].”

Collaboration with experts from both the public and private sectors was a thread that ran through a post-election interview at P. S. duPont Middle School, an interview in which Williams showed he’s far more than simply a law-andorder mayor. 

Education is a key issue for Williams, who in 1999 got the final credits needed for his associate degree in criminal justice from Delaware Tech.

“A 59 percent dropout rate is deplorable,” he said. “If we don’t stem the tide of these dropouts, you can make all the arrests you want, nothing’s going to change. Because when folks are not educated, they feed right into the criminal justice system. It’s a proven fact. It’s a revolving door.”

He said he would talk to the superintendents and set up a roundtable of counselors and teachers “who have worked with problem kids who have been arrested, been in and out of the system, and pick out the things we think will work.”

Williams even demonstrated knowledge about a low-profile but potentially serious issue that never came up during the campaign: flooding in low-lying, mostly poor areas of the city. According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, a large portion of South Wilmington lies within the 100-year floodplain, and many locations experience chronic flooding issues. (Mortgage holders on properties within the 100-year floodplain, as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, require owners to carry flood insurance.)

“Southbridge is on a floodplain like New Orleans,” says Williams. “I have never understood why the Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t come in to take a strong look at that. We are going to advocate for that. We are going to bring in some engineers— some we may have to pay, some we may ask to volunteer—because if we ever have a major storm like Sandy, and we don’t get people out quick enough, the death toll could be severe, never mind the economic devastation.”

Still, crime is the vortex around which all of Wilmington’s problems swirl. Cut crime, and more businesses and visitors will come to the city, bringing more funds for municipal coffers. Take drugs and guns off the streets, and more kids will stay in school. 

Wilmington to the bone, the native son is confident he’s the right man for the job of stopping his city’s 16-year rise in violent crime. “One thing I know how to do, I know how to fight crime,” he says. “I don’t want to tell the criminal how I’m coming at them, but you’re going to see a major change, a major change.” 

Williams promises to provide the police with “the best training, the best leadership, the best equipment and support,” along with a new command structure that will energize them.

Marty Hageman waxes downright philosophical when predicting his former partner’s impact on his hometown: “Dennis sticks to it until he solves the problem. I think we’re going to see a new city arising.”

Echoing that optimism, Williams seems to hark back to his days as a rookie cop when he speaks of Wilmington’s future.

“We’ll get through this, I’m telling you, we will. All we have to do is persevere, stay focused, don’t panic, and call on the good Lord every now and then.”

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May 2018

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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

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Telephone: 302-656-6466
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Sponsor: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Telephone: 800.448.3883
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Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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More information

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Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
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Telephone: 302-656-6466
Website »

More information

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Cost: Included with general admission ($5-20)

Where:
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Sponsor: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Telephone: 800.448.3883
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Cost: Free

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View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8283
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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: FREE

Where:
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Telephone: 302-656-6466
Website »

More information

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Cost: FREE

Where:
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Telephone: 302-656-6466
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More information

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Cost: Included with general admission ($5-20)

Where:
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Sponsor: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
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Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
2nd Floor, Carvel State Office Building
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8283
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

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Sponsor: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Telephone: 800-448-3883
Contact Name: Information and Tours
Website »

More information

THE FIGURE: THE INDICATIVE AND THE ALLUSIVE Group Exhibition  April 1 - August 26, 2018 Opening Reception: Friday, April 6, 2018 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop with Panel Discussion: 6 - 7 PM...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-656-6466
Website »

More information

A needle's eye in a pond, a Greek temple in the garden, an Ottoman tent sitting on a hill—these are just a few of the inspirations for our upcoming, first-ever outdoor exhibition Follies:...

Cost: Included with general admission ($5-20)

Where:
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
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Wilmington, DE  19807
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Sponsor: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Telephone: 800.448.3883
Contact Name: Information and Tours
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GUARDIANS OF THE IMAGE MAKER Group Exhibition & Programs Commemorating The 1968 Riots April 6 - June 29, 2018 Opening reception: Friday, April 6, 2018                      5 - 9 PM...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 302-656-6466
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Charity Golf Event to benefit Children's Beach House A great way to start your Memorial Day weekend a day early! Make sure to register as a single golfer or register your foursome ahead of...

Cost: $225 Single Golfer / $900 Foursome

Where:
Peninsula on Indian River Bay
26937 Bay Farm Rd.
Millsboro, DE  19966
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Sponsor: The Ocean Atlantic Companies
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Join us on The Patio, voted Best Outdoor Dining by Delaware Today readers! Happy hour 4PM - 6:30PM, live entertainment 6PM - 9PM, local craft beer, handcrafted cocktails, creative gastropub menu,...

Cost: menu items vary

Where:
Hilton Christiana
100 Continental Dr.
Newark, DE  19713
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Relax and unwind after a long day with the Museum’s popular Happy Hour series. Enjoy live music on the terrace with friends or tour the galleries indoors. Special themed nights will be scheduled...

Cost: Museum galleries are open with free admission every Thursday from 4–8 pm

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Alexi Natchev: Prints and Drawings will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from May 4-25, 2018. A free opening reception to meet the artist will be held on Friday, May 4 from 5-7 p.m. Alexi...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
2nd Floor, Carvel State Office Building
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8283
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
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Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

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Mary Pritchard is an award winning pastel artist from Chestertown, Maryland. Following a career in education administration at the University of Delaware, Mary returned to painting full-time....

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

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A needle's eye in a pond, a Greek temple in the garden, an Ottoman tent sitting on a hill—these are just a few of the inspirations for our upcoming, first-ever outdoor exhibition Follies:...

Cost: Included with general admission ($5-20)

Where:
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Sponsor: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Telephone: 800.448.3883
Contact Name: Information and Tours
Website »

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THE FIGURE: THE INDICATIVE AND THE ALLUSIVE Group Exhibition  April 1 - August 26, 2018 Opening Reception: Friday, April 6, 2018 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop with Panel Discussion: 6 - 7 PM...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 302-656-6466
Website »

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GUARDIANS OF THE IMAGE MAKER Group Exhibition & Programs Commemorating The 1968 Riots April 6 - June 29, 2018 Opening reception: Friday, April 6, 2018                      5 - 9 PM...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 302-656-6466
Website »

More information

Glory of Stories introduces young visitors to art and the Museum through a story reading followed by an interactive tour of relevant works of art and a studio art project. This program encourages...

Cost: Free to Members, $5 per child and one adult free for Non-Members

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Meeting every Friday, Bayhealth Kent General Hospital, 640 s. State Street, Dover, 7:30 pm., Private Dining Room #3 in the basement. For those who have, or think they may have a gambling problem....

Cost: 0.00

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
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Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
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The 11th annual Artisans Fair, featuring unique handcrafted art objects, will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 26, at Lord Baltimore Elementary School on Route 26 in Ocean View, DE. ...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lord Baltimore Elementary School
Route 26
Ocean View, DE  19970
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Sponsor: South Coastal DE AARP Chapter
Telephone: 302-732-6336
Contact Name: Ida Crist
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GUARDIANS OF THE IMAGE MAKER Group Exhibition & Programs Commemorating The 1968 Riots April 6 - June 29, 2018 Opening reception: Friday, April 6, 2018                      5 - 9 PM...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-656-6466
Website »

More information

THE FIGURE: THE INDICATIVE AND THE ALLUSIVE Group Exhibition  April 1 - August 26, 2018 Opening Reception: Friday, April 6, 2018 | 5 - 9 PM during Art Loop with Panel Discussion: 6 - 7 PM...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Delaware Contemporary
200 South Madison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Telephone: 302-656-6466
Website »

More information

A needle's eye in a pond, a Greek temple in the garden, an Ottoman tent sitting on a hill—these are just a few of the inspirations for our upcoming, first-ever outdoor exhibition Follies:...

Cost: Included with general admission ($5-20)

Where:
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Sponsor: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Telephone: 800.448.3883
Contact Name: Information and Tours
Website »

More information

Science Saturday – River Rangers River Rangers learn how to gauge the health of our local waterways by observing the variety of critters living in it. Visitors of all ages are invited to...

Cost: Activities are included in regular admission and free for members.

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE
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Sponsor: Hagley Museum & Library
Telephone: (302) 65802400 x 238
Contact Name: Jessica Eisenbrey
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