Roberta "Bobbie" Harrison, matriarch of a celebrated Tilghman Island business that includes a restaurant, inn, charter fishing fleet and seafood operations, died of cancer complications Monday at Memorial Hospital in Easton. She was 74 and lived in Tilghman.
Born Roberta Katharine Lambdin in Baltimore and raised on Fayette Street, she moved with her parents to a Talbot County farm in McDaniel as a 7-year-old. Her father, Robert Preston Lambdin, was a boat builder and farmer who was associated with the old Claiborne ferry, which carried autos and passengers before the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
After graduating from St. Michaels High School, she met her future husband, Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison III, whose family owned a summertime boarding house patronized by vacationing families and fishermen. Family members said that she worked in her aunt's soda fountain and that Mr. Harrison would offer her a ride home. When she took courses at Strayer's Business College, he would drive her back from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore on Sunday nights.
"She had wanted to be a teacher or an airline stewardess, but worked at an Easton loan office, Colonial Acceptance, during the day and at Atkinson's department store in the evenings. Then she went to the Maryland National Bank on Tilghman Island for a number of years," said her son, Levin F. "Bud" Harrison IV of Sherwood. "She learned her business sense at the banks and her hospitality ability at the retail store."
In the 1960s, she began working for her extended family's ever-growing business interests, which included a restaurant, the Chesapeake House, an oystering operation, an inn and charter fishing and hunting. She became chief financial officer of the Harrison Oyster Co.
She also became a presence at Harrison's Chesapeake House restaurant, which had been run by her mother-in-law, Alice. In 1979 she became its chief financial operator, a post she held until last year.
"She understood true hospitality and made it a point to meet her guests," her son said. "It was a true family business. After my grandparents retired, she helped manage it, with my father running the sport fishing and wholesale oyster operation and she ran the restaurant and the hotel. She was also our bookkeeper for years."
She put her own touches on the menu.
"She was an excellent baker and made the cakes and pies," her son said. "Her signature desserts were a yellow layer cake of three or four layers with chocolate icing. She also made a devil's food cake with a homemade caramel sugar icing."
She did her baking at night and called it her "relaxation." She also made coconut cake and strawberry shortcake.
"There was no problem in the business she could not solve," said Betty Schall, a Newcomb resident who worked alongside her in the restaurant for 30 years. "She wanted the recipes to be totally consistent. If you had the stewed tomatoes 10 years ago, she wanted them to taste the same as if you had them yesterday. She was all over the place, as hostess or in the kitchen."
She said that Mrs. Harrison was a mentor to her employees and was called upon to give them advice.
In the mid-1980s she and her husband decided to bring their Chesapeake-inspired business to Baltimore. They began small, initially selling steamed crabs from an authentic Chesapeake Bay "buy" boat anchored off Pratt Street.
In 1986 they built a hotel and restaurant called Harrison's Pier Five. As part of the setting, Mr. Harrison worked to have the Seven Foot Knoll lighthouse brought to the south side of the hotel, where it remains.
"My mother worked on the decor," said another son, Charles R. "Chuck" Harrison of Timonium. "She wanted the restaurant tables to have a nautical theme with ropes inset under a glazed polymer top."
The family gave up the Baltimore operation and concentrated on the Eastern Shore.
"My mother was as general a manager as you could be," Chuck Harrison said. "She did all the ordering and scheduled all the servers and housekeepers."
The Talbot County Chamber of Commerce named her its 2000 Business Woman of the Year. Family members said she also cooked and donated food to her church and the volunteer fire company.
Services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Tilghman United Methodist Church on Tilghman Island.
In addition to her husband of nearly 56 years and two sons, survivors include a sister, Leatrice Cornelia Lambdin of Denton; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.