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Marie A. 'Toni' Francfort, 89, a former department store buyer, has died

Marie A. "Toni" Francfort, a retired department store buyer who came to love her adopted city of Baltimore, died of heart failure Sept. 23 at her Butchers Hill home. She was 89.

The daughter of Louis R. Petoletti, a pharmacist, and Letizia Petoletti, who managed her husband's drugstore, Marie Antoinette Petoletti was born and raised in Iselin, N.J.

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She was a graduate of Woodbridge High School in Woodbridge, N.J., and the New York School of Fashion Merchandising.

In 1951, she married Bernard R. Francfort, the owner of BREF Displays, a company that created window displays for department stores.

Mrs. Francfort was a lingerie buyer for the old B. Altman & Co. department store in New York City during the 1950s.

She and her husband left the city in 1958 and moved to Annandale, N.J., in the rural western part of the state. They lived in a clapboard home that had been built before the Civil War.

When a multi-lane highway threatened her home — where she operated an antiques business — she found 4 acres that a nearby farmer was selling and had her home and barn moved about two miles away.

As bulldozers threatened to fell a huge, ancient sycamore tree that held her daughter's rope swing, Mrs. Francfort took up post in front of the tree.

"She proclaimed that 'You will have to take me first before you take this tree down.' The tree still stands there today," said her daughter, Narda Francfort Carroll, a Pigtown artist.

"The day they moved the house and barn, the movers let me and my father sit on the front porch as they moved the house," her daughter recalled. "Moving buildings at the time was almost unheard of and it made the front page of the local newspaper. Schoolteachers even brought out students to watch as the house passed by their school."

When her husband retired in 1984, they looked for a place to live and decided on Butchers Hill.

"We wanted to move to a small city and really liked this area for a number of reasons," Mrs. Francfort told The Baltimore Sun in a 1996 interview.

"Every weekend we visited our daughter and she would take us on driving tours of the various neighborhoods. Before we knew it, we had seen all the neighborhoods and really liked this area," she said. "We can walk to the waterfront and walk to a shopping areas. The really nice thing is we can attend culture events and still be home by the 11 o'clock news."

"They had always loved Baltimore and, wanting to move back to the city after retiring, they decided on Baltimore since the city was at that time continuing its renaissance," said Ms. Carroll. "They loved what Mayor William Donald Schaefer was accomplishing and wanted to be part of the urban progress."

"They decided on Butchers Hill because the neighborhood was evolving. She embraced the city and the neighborhood from the day they moved there," her daughter said. "Being fluent in both French and Italian, she translated on many occasions for tour groups promoting city sites."

Mrs. Francfort and her husband joined community groups and associations focusing on initiatives for healthy neighborhoods and housing and restoration projects, such as the historic Todd House on North Point Road that dated to 1661 and played a strategic role in the Battle of North Point in 1814, when British invaders were repulsed.

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"One of her most cherished groups was Friends of Patterson Park, helping to restore the park and pagoda. Nancy Supik, former director, recently was going through prior master plans for the park and she said Toni's name was all over it," said her daughter.

"She and her husband moved to the neighborhood in 1984, and that was so unusual for the time. We worked hard to stabilize the neighborhood and she was so energetic and excited about city life," said Ms. Supik.

"She served on the Banner Neighborhood board and when we started Friends of Patterson Park, she was right there," said Ms. Supik. "Her involvement was invaluable."

"She was committed to open space and natural settings, including helping Steve Young with obtaining plants for Halcott Square, a neighborhood pocket park on Duncan Street," said Ms. Carroll. "She was always one to roll up her sleeves, get a shovel and plant."

When Ms. Carroll and her husband, Rodney Carroll, a Baltimore sculptor, were in the process of transforming a vacant Pigtown lot into a neighborhood sculpture garden, Mrs. Francfort arranged for topsoil, mulch, flower seeds and grass.

Mrs. Francfort donated her body to the Maryland State Anatomy Board with the admonition, "I want to make sure I am helpful and useful even when I'm gone."

"In every aspect she was determined to help improve things," her daughter said.

A celebration of Mrs. Francfort's life will be held at 3 p.m. Nov. 8 in the sculpture garden she helped create at 1310 W. Cross St.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Francfort is survived by a brother, Angelo Petoletti of Livermore, Calif.; and a sister, Alessandra Pinter of Boulder, Colo.

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