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Katherine Elizabeth “Bette” O’Conor, a family matriarch who founded a high school humanities program, has died.
Katherine Elizabeth “Bette” O’Conor, a family matriarch who founded a high school humanities program, has died. (Baltimore Sun)

Katherine Elizabeth "Bette" O'Conor, a family matriarch who founded a high school humanities program, died of congestive heart failure Jan. 2 at her Lutherville home. She was 85.

Born Katherine Elizabeth Ellis in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Joseph T. Ellis, an air conditioning engineer, and Katherine Lurz Ellis, who worked on Capitol Hill. She was a 1946 Notre Dame Preparatory School graduate who attended Notre Dame of Maryland University.

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She grew up on Ednor Road in Ednor Gardens. As a young woman she made extra money by parking the cars driven by sports fans to the old Baltimore Stadium in the 1940s before Memorial Stadium was constructed on the same site.

Family members said that when she was 14, she met James P. O'Conor, the son of Maryland Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor, who was later elected to the U.S. Senate.

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She met her future husband when she and a friend went swimming at the Hillendale Country Club. They soon began dating. "We were young and going steady and my parents didn't know if it were a good thing," her husband said. "And here we are, 65 years later."

He said she often spent time in the governor and senator's offices and at the O'Conor family home.

"Her father died while she was still in school and my father became a surrogate father to her," said Mr. O'Conor.

As a young woman, she worked for the old Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. She married in 1950 and began raising a family while her husband began a residential real estate business, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn.

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While she worked briefly in real estate, she left it because she preferred running a household and spending time with her children.

"She had no favorites — she loved us all equally" said son, Sean O'Conor, who lives in Phoenix in Baltimore County.

Family members recalled her as unselfish, compassionate person who had an indomitable spirit and a strong sense of humor.

Mrs. O'Conor created an interdisciplinary program at Notre Dame Preparatory School. She recalled an incident in her own education — she lacked tuition to complete college in the years after her father's death.

"Bette was a voracious reader and she was never without a book," her husband said. "Even when she left college, she asked for a list of the books she would have read. She then went out and read them all."

Her husband said her love of books and reading only increased with time.

In 2008 she and her husband established the Bette Ellis O'Conor Humanities Program at Notre Dame Preparatory School. Freshmen at the school apply for the program and begin in their sophomore year. They complete their studies as seniors.

"The program provides a nurturing environment where it is safe for the girls to explore a broad range of ideas, philosophies, and cultures and learn about themselves in relation to the greater world," said a Notre Dame publication.

"Notre Dame Prep is a better school because of her," said Sister Patricia McCarron, the school's headmistress.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 101 Church Lane in Cockeysville.

In addition to her son and husband of 65 years, survivors include three other sons, Rob O'Conor of Kansas City, Kan., Thomas O'Conor of Del Ray Beach, Fla., and Terrence O'Conor of Lancaster, Pa.; three daughters, Kristen Reynolds of St. Petersburg, Fla., Mary O'Conor of Baltimore and Lauren O'Conor Berger of Baltimore; 17 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. A son, James P. O'Conor, died in 2008.

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