Marie DeRito, the owner of Kent Fisher Furs, died of congestive heart failure and complications of cancer Thursday at her Mays Chapel home. She was 88.
Born in Palermo, Sicily, and the oldest of five children, she moved to the Baltimore area with her family when she was 2 years old. She grew up in a tight-knit family with a strong Catholic faith. Her father, Stephano Gambino, was a shoe salesman, and her mother, Anna Gambino, a homemaker.
Mrs. DeRito graduated from Seton High School, where she studied opera and performed in school productions. Her voice could also be heard almost every Sunday in church. Although she didn't choose opera as a career, she remained an avid fan throughout her life.
"She almost probably could have gone on for training as a professional, but she got married and became a homemaker," said her son, Carl DeRito of Hunt Valley. "Family came first."
After leaving high school, she landed a job in what was then the bustling Howard Street retail corridor as a hat buyer for the women's boutique Schleisner Co.
Mrs. DeRito's future husband, whom she met through friends, worked nearby at a wedding shop and furrier, Kent Bridal and Furs, he started with a partner. She and Anthony DeRito married in 1950.
While her husband ran the growing business, Mrs. DeRito stayed home to raise their family, which swelled to three children. She ferried them to school, sports practices and other recreational activities. She taught her son how to ride a bike and operate his first stereo.
Mr. DeRito's partner eventually left the business, and in 1963 the company merged with a rival and changed its name to Kent Fisher Furs.
When their children had grown up, Mrs. DeRito joined her husband to help run the business, where she worked for 30 years. She ran the part of the company that handled the storing of customers' furs during the warmer months. Her duties also included overseeing the restyling of furs that had become outdated.
When the company decided to open its current location in Towson in the 1980s, Mrs. DeRito stayed and ran the downtown Baltimore store. She left when the family decided to close the original location amid deteriorating conditions on Howard Street.
Employees said she was a hard worker and a calm presence in the office who took an interest in their lives. She made a point to tell them she appreciated their work and that they were doing a good job. She noticed when a worker felt down.
"She was like the matriarch of the business — of our office," said Debra Holloway, who has worked for Kent Fisher in customer service for a decade. "She brought sunshine. There was never a day she didn't come in and say 'good morning' and ask how you were doing."
Around the office Mrs. DeRito was known affectionately as Mimi after one of her favorite operas, or Mrs. Fisher, because so many customers assumed that was her last name.
"Only the people who knew us knew our name was DeRito," said her son. "It's not like we tried to hide our name; it just evolved that way."
Her desk was filled with family photos and there was always a book or two on it that she would read during slow times of the day. A small radio frequently played opera. She liked to talk about current events and was knowledgeable on many subjects, those who knew her said.
Tere Ferris, who has worked at Kent Fisher for 26 years, considered Mrs. DeRito a mother figure. Mrs. DeRito knew Ms. Ferris grew up in a troubled household, so took her under her wing.
"Growing up, I didn't have that kind of support," Ms. Ferris said. "To say she is going to be missed is an understatement. Her death leaves a huge void."
In nearly three decades, Ms. Ferris said, she never heard Mrs. DeRito raise her voice at anyone.
Mrs. DeRito worked six days a week until about three months ago, when she became ill, her son said. Even when people told her she should slow down, she always felt her place was on the job, her employees said.
She had her favorite furs just like her customers, including a sable stole, a three-quarter black mink and a cashmere cape trimmed in fur that she wore on "lighter" days, her son said.
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When not working, she was active with the American Citizens for Italian Matters, which raises scholarship money for young women of Italian descent. She liked to take European and Caribbean cruises, go to the opera and cook dishes from her native Sicily. She would share recipes with others or invite them over for dinner at her house.
She once cooked a spread of veal Parmesan, eggplant Parmesan, spaghetti and tomato mozzarella for Kent Fisher employees. "She was a true Italian mama when it came to cooking," Ms. Ferris said.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, 200 Ware Aven., Towson.
Mrs. DeRito's husband died in 1991. In addition to her son, she is survived by daughters Toni Jo Quackenbush of Baldwin and Stephanie DeRito of Lutherville; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.