Business owner remembered as 'fun-loving, caring person'

July 22, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

Fashions filled the racks of Catherine "Katy" O'Connell's downtown dress shop, but it was her gracious way that filled the lives of those around her, friends and family said Monday.

O'Connell, who owned Katy O'Connell's Dress Shop in downtown Hagerstown for 36 years, died Friday. She suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease for a number of years before pneumonia claimed her life at age 79.

"She ran her business for 36 years and truly believed the customer was always right," said Sondra Crumbacker, who was O'Connell's bookkeeper for the last 15 years she was in business.


Crumbacker said she often worried that people would take advantage of O'Connell's giving nature, but she said her gracious business sense kept the dress shop alive.

O'Connell's son, Phil O'Connell, 44, said her customers went to his mom for therapy. She helped them with problems and then helped them pick out clothes.

He remembers his mother as a fun-loving, caring person who could eat 12 ears of corn in one sitting and could whip up a dress for a friend or herself without thinking twice.

Crumbacker said as a boss, O'Connell made her feel like she was working with the trendsetter rather than working for her.

The two would travel to New York City about three times a year to buy clothes for the shop, stopping at shoe stores first so O'Connell could buy a pair or two for herself.

When O'Connell chose clothes to flank the racks of her dress shop, she looked to Manhattan's colorful shoe line as a guide, picking dresses in colors that matched the most chic styles of the day.

"She didn't follow anybody's fashion ways," Phil O'Connell said. "She had her own style and wasn't afraid to be bold or daring."

For nearly 30 years, O'Connell wrote an award-winning advice column on fashion for The Herald-Mail, drawing notice from Women's Wear Daily, a national trade publication.

She had a knack for dressing her customers with flair. By adding a pin or a scarf to an outfit, "she could make you look unique," Crumbacker said.

Her artistic talent also worked off the clock. Phil O'Connell said The Maryland Art Institute graduate especially loved painting. She first painted in oils, then experimented with acrylics and watercolors, mainly depicting beach scenes and historic sites, he said.

Crumbacker said she often marvels at a painting O'Connell did of her patio.

"I've seen that patio so many times and I never saw it the way she painted it," she said. "She paints with an eye I don't have."

Maurice Snyder, 89, of Williamsport, was O'Connell's longtime neighbor. He said she was involved in the community, often chairing clubs and coordinating fund-raisers.

"She had a wonderful ability to unite people," Crumbacker said.

Hagerstown City Council Member Carol N. Moller owned the West Washington Street business Carol & Company when O'Connell's shop was on North Potomac Street.

The two served on the first Hagerstown Downtown Assessment District board at a time when the group met for breakfast to discuss improving their thriving shopping district.

"We could do more together than we could separately," she said.

Crumbacker said the downtown stores never competed with one another. If one store carried a product, the other stores wouldn't duplicate it. The downtown business owners frequently shopped at each other's stores, she said.

Moller said she loved O'Connell's clothes and also loved O'Connell, the person.

"She was always very vibrant and that's the way I will remember her," she said.

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