Sondra Harrison McGee, who co-owned and managed her family's Pier Five seafood restaurant on Pratt Street, died of a heart attack March 17 at her Marco Island, Fla., home. She was 71 and had lived in the Hampton section of Towson.
Born on Tilghman Island, she was the daughter of Levin F. Harrison Jr. and Alice Garvin Harrison, who owned and operated Harrison's Chesapeake House. Her father was a charter fishing boat operator and her mother ran the popular Eastern Shore summer hotel and restaurant.
"As a young girl, she learned the art of gracious hospitality, which served her well throughout her life," said her husband, Richard P. McGee Sr.
"Growing up in the business, you end up doing it all," Mrs. McGee said in a 1989 Baltimore Sun article. "I waited on tables in the morning for the fishermen, 6 o'clock in the morning. Then if one of the maids didn't show up, I'd make the beds. But this business gets in your blood. You have to be a certain type of person to work in this business. You have to love it."
Mrs. McGee was a 1960 graduate of St. Michaels High School. She attended what is now Salisbury University and the Bard Avon School.
"She was a great fisherman," said her brother, Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison III of Tilghman Island. "She just had the knack. She would catch one fish after the other. She was my younger sister and people would ask me if Sondra were going out that day on my boat. She developed her own following."
In 1964, when she married, she moved to Baltimore and often showed the city to members of her family who lived on the Eastern Shore.
"I was the first child born to her brother," said her nephew, Levin F. "Bud" Harrison IV of Tilghman Island. "She was my baby sitter and later she took me all around Baltimore, to Orioles games and the Enchanted Forest. She had a beautiful voice and could sing until the wee hours of the morning. And there was one thing about Sondra: She always spoke her mind. You knew where you stood with her."
She worked alongside her husband at his business, Abacus Corp., then located on Maryland Avenue at 21st Street.
"She ran our accounts receivables. She had a good way of working with our customers, talking with them, gaining their confidence," her husband said.
Family members said that in the late 1980s, she brought Harrison's Chesapeake House of Tilghman Island to Baltimore's Pier 5 in the Inner Harbor. She ran its 1,100-seat restaurant with her two sons and two nephews. She was also assisted by her husband and brother in the family venture.
When a Sun reporter asked in the 1980s about the projected volume of business, Mrs. McGee recalled how her family responded to business challenges in the 1950s: "With the Bay Bridge, it became so easy to get back and forth, our restaurant business just took off. What people don't realize is that at Tilghman we serve a volume of people. What they don't understand is that we've been serving in volumes for years. On Saturday nights or Sundays, it is not unusual to serve 700 or 800 dinners."
Her husband said she attended numerous meetings before the city Planning Board to gain permission to build a hotel alongside the restaurant on Pier 5 at Pratt Street. She and family members had the former Seven Foot Knoll lighthouse moved to the site, as well as crab boats, where her sons sold crabs, and the steamer Nobska.
In an Evening Sun article, she said that much of the cooking in her new stainless-steel kitchen would be done with cast-iron skillets.
She arranged that her diners could enjoy their steamed crabs on the outside patio. She spread brown paper on tables and had pitchers of beer ready.
She also worked with the Johns Hopkins Hospital so that the families of patients could stay at the hotel.
"She wanted a challenge," her husband said. "She was the go-to person."
The Harrison family later gave up the hotel and restaurant, which now house McCormick and Schmick's, and Ruth's Chris Steak House.
Mrs. McGee enjoyed celebrating Christmas with her extended family. She was also an accomplished cook and made Maryland specialties as well as other dishes.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Towson United Methodist Church, 501 Hampton Lane.
In addition to her husband of 50 years, and her brother and nephew, survivors include two sons, Richard P. McGee Jr. and Devin Harrison McGee, both of Towson; and five grandchildren.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun