Kathi McGowan was not happy when her husband decided to purchase a motel in Destin.
"I thought I died and went to hell," she deadpanned.
After years of family vacations in Destin, McGowan's husband Bob decided to buy property there. McGowan hadn't even seen the small motel before she arrived.
"He said, 'If I can sell our home in Iowa, would you agree to move down there and live?'" she recalled. It was the early 1980s and the local economy was down, McGowan said. By answering yes to her husband's question, she thought she was calling his bluff. But he sold the house and set his eyes on a quaint motel on Pompano Street.
"I was 48, we had a really nice house and I belonged to every local organization," McGowan said of her Iowa roots. "The hardest part was leaving my mother, who was in a nursing home. But it was Bob's turn. He moved to Iowa for me."
With their kids grown and scattered across the country, they headed south. But the motel wasn't exactly paradise.
"It looked like Bates Motel," said McGowan's daughter, Molly Tietgen. "There wasn't even a number three unit. It just went, one, two, four, five."
"I called my husband 'Norman,' " McGowan added.
The motel's decor consisted of gold cement walls and carpet. And the units were worse, Tietgen said. Bob named the motel after the Old Crystal Beach Pier, which was destroyed in Hurricane Eloise in 1975. The pilings still jut out of the sand just across the street.
In 1997, Tietgen and her husband, Steve, moved from Orlando to Destin, buying a place on Tarpon Street. A year later, Bob died.
Even though it was Bob's idea to own and operate the motel and even though McGowan was not initially sold on the Old Pier Motel, she did not abandon it even during unpredictable weather.
"Both Hurricane Opal and Ivan took us out, but I'm not a quitter," she said. "Now, we have hurricane season down to a science."
And even at 75, she continues to manage the motel saying, "You can only play Bingo for so long."
Inside McGowan's home at the motel, which doubles as the office, Molly shakes her head. She can't see herself working until 75 like her mother.
When Bob passed away, Tietgen signed on to help her mother, cleaning the units and managing the books.
"I couldn't do it without Molly," McGowan said.
'They call me Gram'
For McGowan, when someone stays at the Old Pier Motel, she goes out of her way to treat them like family.
"People come here as renters and leave as friends," she said. "If they need a cup of sugar, I got it. We're like family."
Outside, under the carport, are plenty of beach chairs and umbrellas for renters to use at their disposal.
"They can use everything but the lawn mower and the Cadillac," McGowan said.
Many of the Old Pier renters visit the motel yearly and some even send Christmas cards.
"It's nice to see the families grow, but it makes me feel old," McGowan said. "They call me Gram."
Trying to avoid the spring break crowd, McGowan says her ideal renter is "Over 35 and lives with their mother." However, they're not without a few spring break stories. When it comes to those rowdy renters, McGowan never shies away from putting them in their place.
"One year, there was a spring breaker peeing in the bush outside my window," she recalled. "He didn't see me, but I stuck my head out and said 'That better be Miracle Grow.' We don't put up with anything."
It was only a few years ago that McGowan had refused a return renter for spilling pizza sauce on her unit's new bedspread. Only to find out that the police were looking for him he was on the lam after robbing a bank in Austin. A testament to how tough McGowan is.
McGowan's favorite renter stories are of course the ones with a happy ending, like the renters she had a couple weeks ago.
"The guy wanted to propose to his girlfriend, but didn't know where to do it, so I suggested the Henderson Beach Park," she said. "He proposed and e-mailed back saying they would be lifelong Old Pier guests."
A piece of Old Destin
While Destin continues to grow, it's nice to know there's still some remnants of "Old Destin" left, even if slightly hidden.
"There's still good people that didn't go away," McGowan said. "Destin's still Destin with all those people."
Staying at the Old Pier Motel, you may not have the fancy amenities that luxury hotels and condos provide, but you do get something that no other place has and that's McGowan, the self professed Old Lady at the Old Pier Motel.
For more information on the property visit www.vrbo.com/214167