Every beach needs a Delbert

By on March 17, 2023

The life and times of an Outer Banks legend

(Photo credit: Tom Dugan for Eastern Surf Magazine)

In the song “Stoned Immaculate,” Jim Morrison declares that “No eternal reward will forgive us for wasting the dawn.” That was the mentality that Outer Banks surf icon Delbert Melton, who passed away on March 15, had every day while paddling out to catch a wave. In the song, Morrison tells how he walked down to a pier and met two women—one named Enterprise and the other named Freedom. It’s safe to say while many around him were enterprising, Delbert Melton always chose freedom.

Originally from Norfolk, VA, Delbert played college football at Chowan University from 1971 to 1973. In his sophomore year, he earned All-Coastal Conference honors, All-Region X honors, and NCJAA All-America, Second Team honors. He had his pick of many four-year universities who were interested in him. He chose North Carolina State, but an injury ended his career there before it began. He moved to the Outer Banks in simpler times, when his roughneck, counter-culture attitude blended right into the fabric of the sandbar. It was a time when people like him came to the Outer Banks to escape.

The quintessential surfer, he quickly became an Outer Banks staple, known for encouraging his fellow surfers, coaching the “groms,” and holding court and spreading the stoke with anyone who would listen.

“Delbert truly was an all-inclusive person,” said Theresa Christian, a good friend of his whose children he taught to surf. “He didn’t care who you were. If you were somebody that wanted to learn how to ride a wave, he was going to teach you with whatever resources he had.”

But it was that burly, wide-shouldered football build, the thick, unkempt beard, and loud raspy voice that put the fear of God in some of these young groms and first-time surfers when they sat beside him in a line up.

“The first real wave I ever rode as a kid was with him. I took off and for the first time went down the line. It was so exciting,” says Brad Kleman, 44. “Then I realized I dropped in on Delbert. My excitement instantly turned to fear. Then he screamed, ‘Yeah boy! Now you’re surfing!”

That’s not to say he didn’t do his fair share of badgering the novice surfers. “Paddle paddle! Juniors on the inside! Fat man on a 12-foot board comin’ through!” Those were just a few of the things you’d hear him shouting each day.

Vic Berg, a local surfer, remembers his son coming home one day when he was learning to surf and informing him that Delbert had yelled at him.

“‘Well yeah’ I told him. ‘Everyone’s got to be yelled at by Delbert at least once on this beach. It’s a rite of passage,” recalled Berg.

But everyone knew Delbert would never hurt a fly, unless of course he was running you over during your session—which he did to most new surfers he came across.

“As we always say, you’re nobody on this beach unless you’ve been run over by Delbert,” noted Hunter Romeo, one of his many victims.

When he wasn’t seeking freedom in the water, Melton was working odd jobs to pay the bills–most of the time. In the 80s, he worked at the Atlantis as a bouncer, and moved from construction job to construction job for years, depending how good the waves were.

A video taken by longtime friend and fellow surfer John Jones captured Delbert telling a story of how he lost two jobs during a 10-day swell, a story that encapsulates his mentality perfectly.

“It was head high, bigger every day for 10 days straight,” Delbert recalls in the video. “I lost the job I had building houses. I was at Kelly’s one night and some guy said, ‘Delbert I’ll hire you tomorrow if you show up for work. Ok, I’ll be there in the morning!’ But it was good again in the morning so I didn’t work that day…Two or three days later he said, ‘Delbert I had to hire two guys from Elizabeth City who don’t surf just so I could get the house built, I couldn’t wait on you.’ And I said ‘never mind, the waves are good, I got something to do. I lost two jobs on that one…But [f-word] it, I don’t live here to work.”

Rob Nelson, whose mother lived with Delbert for many years, became quick friends with him and recalls a surf trip they took down south, when he got to witness Delbert at his purest.

“As I sat there on the beach keeping an eye on D, he was a distant speck, as far out as you could see in the belly of this triple overhead winter screamer, streaking like a bat out of hell. Not one person around, no cameras, no lifeguards, no tax man, no cops, no teachers, no coaches. Just exactly where he wanted to be, in the ocean, doing what he loved, in his element. If only for that instant, he had made it in life. He masterfully rode that wave all the way in, right onto the sand.”

The freedom Delbert craved sometimes brought conflict, most notably with the town of Kill Devil Hills. Delbert liked to collect things. He was able to buy a house on a property with his mother and Nelson’s mother, where he collected old cars, pieces of wood, cans, bottles and the like, all with the dream that he would someday turn it into his own recycled paradise. But as things started to pile up, the town and a few select neighbors were not so understanding.

(Credit: Nic McLean documentary video “Kiss This Metamorphosis” in 1997)

This battle between him, his neighbors and the town began decades ago, and was the subject of a documentary film made in the 90’s by Nic McLean called “Kiss This Metamorphosis.” The film documents Melton making his own movie to prove to the town that he was cleaning up his yard. Delbert, as he asserts in his documentary, had paid for the property and was within his rights.

“All the things I have collected all have a purpose, even though that purpose isn’t known by the neighbors and it isn’t known by the town. I know the method to the madness, and I know what everything is intended to be. Because it’s my idea and it’s my dream…They don’t understand because they don’t care,” he declared in the documentary.

In 2016, the community got together when the town seized Melton’s property and was auctioning it off to the highest bidder. Theresa Christian created a GoFundMe campaign which collected enough to save his property and get him a place to stay—the house on the property had been torn down years earlier.

“I think the thing about Delbert was that he was sort of like the best and the worst of what the beach is all about. I think that’s why people loved him so much. You know…the old school Outer Banks is kind of a raw, almost redneck-y sort of place and, and everybody, especially all the old timers, they just remember when the place was wild and kind of feral and Delbert—he was feral. You know, he was not a tame person,” recalled local journalist and author Chris Bickford.

“In terms of his property, it was the same. He just couldn’t be contained in a structure, and he didn’t quite have the builder’s vision of seeing something through,” Bickford added. “He was just, he was just all about the moment.”

His friend Theresa Christian added that while Delbert lived an unconventional lifestyle, people were missing something if they let that cloud their judgment of him.

“I really feel like we can all learn from him is that you know, even though he wasn’t living his life like maybe I do, or you do, or most people do, and he didn’t have a whole lot…he was happy. He was probably happier than anybody that I’ve ever known.”

(Credit: Courtesy of Ben Sproul)

That’s the legacy that Delbert leaves behind. Matt Walker of Milepost Magazine puts it best when he said, “I don’t know if every beach has a Delbert. But God knows every beach needs one. And I’m going to miss him.”

In one of Delbert’s final surf reports, filmed by John Jones from Delbert’s hospital bed about a year ago, he made one of his final announcements:

“Hello boys and girls this is Big D away from the sea,” he said. “For this surf report you need to get in touch with me at Citadel Hospital and you tell me how the surf is. Because I won’t know for quite a while. But I’m coming back. Don’t you worry. I’m gonna run you over again…Have a good one and keep me in mind. Surf one for me. I love you Outer Bankers, y’all are my children. Goodbye.”

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Comments

  • ed

    Nice work Maggie Miles.

    Friday, Mar 17 @ 9:01 am
  • Kathy

    Goodbye free spirit 🌊 I’ll only know you through your moving obit.

    Friday, Mar 17 @ 9:47 am
  • Catherine Heath

    Delbert understood freedom more than most people.

    Friday, Mar 17 @ 9:58 am
  • bill

    Great story about who I’m sure was a free wheeling Dude!! Sail on Delbert !!!

    Friday, Mar 17 @ 10:01 am
  • Justin Mason

    D taught me how to finally get up after a year of just paddling. Gonna miss you brother…see ya soon enuff.

    Friday, Mar 17 @ 10:42 pm
  • Sage

    A true Outer Banks icon, such a sad day and a vacuum to be filled in the lineup and in our hearts.
    My nominations to replace Delbert as the premier representative of all that is iconic and good on our little
    Sandbar. As follows…

    Chris Bickford
    Shree
    John Powell
    The Hoarder Catlady In The Green Mercedes SUV
    Sean Estes

    All of the above please learn to surf kayak asap, your beach needs you!!!

    Friday, Mar 17 @ 10:47 pm
  • Kelly hopkins

    💔

    Saturday, Mar 18 @ 12:40 am
  • Boom Boom

    Great article, the only thing I’ll add in was his love of high school football.
    You always knew when Delbert was at a game.

    Saturday, Mar 18 @ 5:18 am
  • KDH back seat reviewer

    Nothing to say.

    God bless.

    Sunday, Mar 19 @ 8:53 am
  • surf123

    Delbert represents a lifestyle free of the everyday burdens of life that are self-imposed by working stiffs focused on obtaining things and not living. Some would look down on him thinking they were better than him because he was an outlier and not seeing they are the ones who are caught up in the system with no way out other than working a lifetime or dying. Delber was the exact opposite. For the younger folks…find a path that gives you flexibility to do what you want to do in life and not be tied down by money. Definitely don’t waste your life away behind a desk.

    Sunday, Mar 19 @ 1:02 pm
  • Al

    Icon? OK then.

    Sunday, Mar 19 @ 1:27 pm
  • Janet Robbins

    Wonderful story about a local surfer legend.. RIP..

    Sunday, Mar 19 @ 2:35 pm
  • Big Daddy

    we lost a really good guy…..not many left here

    Sunday, Mar 19 @ 5:16 pm
  • Keith Beal

    I’ve read this story twice the past couple days! I can relate to this article very well. Never let your venture to seek more and more pay at your work. You are seeking a closed and cloned lifestyle. Do what you love as much as life allows through seeking that thin line of choice and LIVE IT! We all have numbered days on this Earth. I wish I could’ve met Delbert b/c I would picked his brain w/ many things. Great article Maggie Miles…I love your writing. Peace!

    Wednesday, Mar 22 @ 11:24 am
  • Jody Crosswhite

    I used to surf with the big man in Buxton in the 70’s. The first time I experienced his yell “watch out!”, I thought, wow what a wave hog. He’d always get on the inside of me on the killer rights. He was bigger than me and I thought if he runs me over I’m dead. Lol! He never went hungry and never had two nickels to rub together. I worked at my cousins sub shop Crickets in Buxton back then. He’d sit and watch people eat subs and not finish them and beat them to the trash can asking if he could have the rest. The expressions on people’s faces as this gorilla of a man looked them straight in the eye and was happy to recycle their left overs in his belly. What a life:) RIP Big D. Thanks for those memories.

    Friday, Mar 24 @ 4:21 pm
  • Sean Mulligan

    I met Delbert when I was a freshman at Norfolk Catholic.He was in my brother Terry’s class. A really nice big guy for sure.I talked to him occasionally at third street over the years.I like the analogy of Enterprise and Freedom.Somehow if you can figure how to be in the middle seems like the best strategy.I feel like I did that and I am lucky enough to be healthy enough to still be surfing.

    Wednesday, Mar 29 @ 3:27 am
  • Lemonshirt

    I never actually med Big D face to face. But distantly admired him shortly after moving to KCH back in 2003. I learned quickly that he was both a local legend and a gently giant of a man. The world needs more Big D’s.

    Thursday, Mar 30 @ 6:25 pm
  • Barnes St.

    Maggie, thank you. Delbert lived the way we wish we could every day. So many memorable moments with him that will live on forever. True legend, and a good friend.

    Friday, Mar 31 @ 1:03 am