Joseph George Otterbein, the retired baker who created and marketed a popular thin sugar cookie, died Saturday of complications from congestive heart failure at his Lake Montebello home. He was 88.
Mr. Otterbein was born above the family bakery at Fort Avenue and Jackson Street in South Baltimore. He attended the Holy Cross School and was a 1941 Loyola High School graduate. During World War II, he served in the Army and was trained as a paratrooper. He was assigned to England and France.
After the war, he returned to his family's bakery, then a well-patronized neighborhood institution founded by his grandfather in 1881. He took over the business in 1947 and bought it two years later.
Mr. Otterbein followed the Otterbein family's traditional practices and made German-style breads, cakes and pastries, including peach cake and schmierkase. But he also became famous for his signature treat, a thin, delicate sugar cookie, which he made in lemon, ginger and chocolate chip variants.
Mr. Otterbein's cookies were so popular, family members said, that customers bought them right from the oven. While other bakeries used plastic bags, the warm Otterbein cookies went into paper bags, which are now sold in a red-and-white color scheme.
Mr. Otterbein was also known for his ability to decorate a wedding cake.
"I was always amazed at how fast he could knock out the roses," said his son, Joseph Otterbein Jr. of Shrewsbury, Pa. "They were beautiful and they tasted good. He worked in the classical style. Whatever he did in life, it was a great amount of grace."
Mr. Otterbein noticed that his long-established customers were leaving South Baltimore in the 1950s. In 1962, he closed his Fort Avenue business and moved to a shopping center at Loch Raven Boulevard and Northern Parkway.
"He taught us everything, from making doughnuts to pastry, but also kept his eye on the front of the house —he would pop out and deal with and talk with customers," said his son. "A lot of time the customers would feel welcome to come in the back and talk to him by the ovens."
Family members said he established a new customer base there and kept old ones who had lived in South Baltimore. He also hired students from nearby Mercy High School and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School to work in the store.
After Mr. Otterbein retired in 1996, his sons took over the business and now run it as a wholesale operation.
"My father always seemed to be enjoying himself most when he saw that everyone else, especially his friends and family, were enjoying themselves," said his son Joseph. "While entertaining guests at his home, he loved to bake at home and make apple and pumpkin pies. He was also a great turkey roaster."
Family members said he loved ten-pin bowling, football, poker and gardening.
"But nothing pleased the patriarch as much as making his large family happy, whether at a backyard barbecue or while cramming his nine children into two cars for a summer trip to Ocean City," said his daughter, Frances Moran of Baltimore. "He worked six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on his one day off he would take his children to the playground, the swimming pool, museums, Loch Raven Dam or just for a ride."
They said he rarely complained — except when his favorite football team, the Ravens, lost. They said he was known for a sense of humor that became funnier year after year.
A Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Shrine of the Little Flower Roman Catholic Church, 3500 Belair Road, where he was a longtime member.
In addition to his son and daughter, survivors include three other sons, Steven Otterbein and Paul Otterbein of Baltimore and Mark Otterbein of Eldersburg; three daughters, Beth Ohrenschall, Joan Otterbein and Karen Hunter, all of Baltimore; 24 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. His wife of 55 years, Elizabeth Smith Otterbein, a homemaker, died in 2001. A son, Michael Otterbein, died in 2001.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun