Lessons from the Tan Man

by Oct 13, 2023Community, People, Southport Oak Island

Oak Island beach icon Alex Zelaya, who passed away in June 2023, is remembered as an inspiration.

Many people on Oak Island knew Mr. Alex, the friendly silver-haired, deeply tanned man who walked for miles on the beach every day, but few knew his background overcoming hardships with resiliency and positivity.

Affectionately nicknamed “The Tan Man” by Oak Island regulars, Alexander Zelaya was born May 26, 1952, in San Miguel, El Salvador. His mother, Maria Orvelina Zelaya, longed for a better life for her children and made the heart-wrenching choice in 1960 to leave her husband and eldest daughter to take care of the five children she was raising (her own three children as well as a niece and nephew) to plant new beginnings for their family in America. Working tirelessly in a sweatshop in Hell’s Kitchen Manhattan, she eventually saved enough money to bring over Alex’s father and then, in 1970, all five children.

A soccer player practically from birth, Alex spent his childhood and school years playing the sport every minute that he could. He got scholarship offers to play soccer at UCLA and NYU, choosing the latter. He continued to play professionally until his first child, Alexia, was born. Even after his professional career was over, he never stopped playing daily pickup games. He credited his ability to endure pain and push his body to extremes to those decades of daily soccer.

In New York, Alex worked as a limousine driver for many high-profile organizations and people, among them the New York Yankees, New York Mets, the Knicks and many doctors and professionals. Yankees right fielder Paul O’Neill was his most frequent and favorite client. Alex loved that experience and retired after 30 years, proud that he had honored the lessons his mother taught him: to always be grateful for an opportunity to make money for his family and always respect his bosses. He enjoyed his career, but there is one thing he didn’t miss at all: the dress suits. On Oak Island he was recognized not only by his dark tan, but also his brightly colored bathing suits. “Bright colors are happy colors. No more black and gray and navy blue for me!” he said.

Oak Island NC Tan Man

Always desiring to help others, Alex did what he could to help other immigrants have the same opportunities given to him. Over many years in New York, he helped 13 friends and family members find their home in America, letting them live rent-free in his house while they put down roots.

In 2015 Alex had a seizure and was in a coma for a month. He flatlined for three minutes but miraculously was given another chance at life, and the doctors were astounded at his recovery. After that health scare, Alex moved from New York to live with Alexia, his son-in-law, Plaz, and his grandchildren in Stoney Creek in Leland.

When Stoney Creek was flooded by Hurricane Florence in 2018, Alex had already moved down to Southport but did not escape the devastation. In trying to rescue items from the family house, Alex’s car drifted into the flood waters, and he had to escape through the car window. Always the optimist, Alex reflected on that time saying that he, “saw a lot of good come out of the flood and things aren’t really that important anyway.”

When he moved down to Southport, Alex started walking on the beach (and at Smithville Park during the winter months). He said he was “only” walking 10 miles a day at that point but continued to increase the distance each year.

For the last three years, he was walking 16 miles every day. In 2021 he kept track and in one year he had completed 5 million steps!

The Tan Man quickly became an Oak Island icon and inspiration. It was a common Oak Island occurrence to hear children screaming, “Mooomm here comes Mr. Alex!!!” as they ran out of the water for their daily wave and check-in. Alex may not have remembered the name of every person he interacted with, but he knew what they looked like, what access they normally sat at, and some interesting parts of their story. To many, it felt like a real badge of honor when Alex began to recognize them.

It has been said if you want to remember how to be a good American, ask an immigrant. Alex was proof of this. He could often be heard saying, “I love this country.” When asked what advice he would give for the next generation he offered, “Work hard and be grateful. Never complain. Respect your bosses and think about how many mouths are being fed because of them. Respect police officers and thank them for doing their job, even if they pull you over for a speeding ticket. Tell them you’re sorry and thank them.”

To instill thankfulness in his children, Alex took all three children to his wife’s homeland of Cuba so they could see how others outside of America live and how much they have to be grateful for.

OKI The Tan Man

Alex did not even like to complain about the weather, and he never checked the forecast either. “Why would I check the weather ahead of time?” he said. “I can’t control the weather. I will know what’s happening when I get out there.” This accepting attitude went right along with his favorite saying, “Don’t worry be happy.” Not only in the sunshine but in the rain, too. “If it’s raining, just look for the rainbow. That means the sun is coming.”

It was not sunny skies in the spring of 2023 for Oak Island or for Alex. After various ailments this winter and multiple hospital stays, in May he was diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma that had spread to his bone marrow and multiple organs. Although his legendary use of VapoRub and abstaining from medicine, alcohol and cigarettes had served him well his whole life, Alex’s miles around the sun had been reached.

Alex and his family were able to receive lots of deserved love from our caring community in his last months. When Alexia showed him the hundreds and hundreds of social media comments and encouragement, videos for his birthday, the GoFundMe love offering and the multitude of cards sent his way, he was shocked. “Why do people love me like this? I’m just a regular person like everybody else,” he said.

The Oak Island/Southport community is full of wonderful people, but Alex was as distinct as his tan and a connection point for so many.

He was a consistent and friendly face. He was an inspiration to truly enjoy where you live and to stay active every day. He was the tie that bonded so many and he was known by all who interacted with him as a kind and gentle soul. All who have been touched by him were inspired by his mental alertness, positive attitude and thankfulness even in the midst of deep suffering.

When asked in May, “Do you miss walking on the beach?” he replied, “Yes, but mostly I miss the people.”

After being able to fulfill his bucket list wish of attending one more Oak Island Friday night concert to see many of his friends, he passed away on June 1, 2023. Many friends commented that it seemed appropriate that he would pass away on Beach Day, the annual day celebrating Oak Island, which Alex called paradise.
He had peace in his heart and high spirits throughout his trials in the last months, showing emotion only when he spoke about his hero, his mother. She went back to visit El Salvador in 2021 and passed away, with his father following a few months later.

Tan Man Oak Island NC

“I know they are waiting for me,” he said, with his voice catching. “My mother was my hero. She taught me everything I know: Never raise your voice. Be kind to everybody. Never argue. Do all things with love. Remember Jesus Christ and never forget. And I never have. Every day I thanked Him for all He has done. I have honored my mother and I have passed this all down to my kids.”

The Tan Man, Mr. Oak Island, the Silver Fox, Mr. Alex will never be forgotten. We are all grateful for the lessons he brought with him to America and to each of us. Oak Island and Southport are better for having known him.

For details about the Celebration of Life in September 2023 and the 6K walk in May 2024 — both honoring Mr. Alex — follow SPT OKI Magazine on Facebook www.facebook.com/sptoki

Photography by Brenda Torrey