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Virginia McKechnie
Virginia McKechnie (Baltimore Sun)

Virginia McKechnie, founder of the Tomlinson Craft Collection, who was also an original Harborplace merchant, died of an aneurysm May 25 at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She was 86 and lived in Cockeysville and Riderwood.

"Just about everyone in the business knows Ginny Tomlinson, the small woman with the gingery hair and lilting voice who helped create a market in Baltimore for finely crafted housewares and jewelry," said a 1997 Baltimore Sun profile. "Tomlinson is an entrepreneurial curiosity: She has managed to sell contemporary crafts for 25 years."

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Born Virginia Ullrich in Mount Clemens, Mich., she was the daughter of Jacob Ullrich, a banker, and Edythe Calvert Ullrich, a homemaker. She earned a business degree at Michigan State University.

She taught briefly and married William Tomlinson, an art dealer, in 1950. They moved to Baltimore in 1961. In the 1997 profile, she said her initial step into the crafts world was organizing an art fair at Ruxton Elementary School, where her two sons were students.

She became the financial officer for the Tomlinson Collection, the art gallery that the couple opened in Pikesville in 1970 and moved to the Rotunda a year later. She decided to expand with a separate business, a line of crafts.

"She was a rousing success almost from the day she opened," said James L. Pierce, a former Tomlinson colleague who lives in Monkton.

She and her husband broke the wall that separated their shops and installed a 1915-era doorway salvaged from a building being demolished for a Union Memorial Hospital expansion.

"The Collection has the sensuality of a bazaar, of a place where the salespeople are artists themselves," said The Sun. "It is rich with silk scarves and kaleidoscopes, mirrors, lamps and mobiles. There are art dolls and Russian toys. Ceramics and pottery. Blown glass, jewelry, handmade boxes and rainbow-colored candles that never drip — and still look pretty after they're used."

The article said that in "one giddy point in the '80s, she presided over three stores: The Rotunda, Mount Vernon [on Charles Street] and Harborplace."

She was an original Harborplace merchant but found that a lack of parking hampered her sales, and she closed her store there after five years. She remained in the Rotunda and opened another gallery in Towson Commons. She was a longtime member and juror for the American Crafts Council.

"As she weaves through her store in the Rotunda, Ginny Tomlinson introduces the work of her artists as if she were presenting friends," the 1997 account said.

She once represented more than 1,000 artists. She often housed them when they came to Baltimore.

"Baltimore likes pretty standard shapes and colors," she said in 1997. "A lot of the homes are traditional rather than contemporary. I have contemporary tastes myself, so I don't go for the real flowery things. Most people here like their contemporary touches in vases or lamps — but nothing way out."

She sold the business in 1998.

She was a past Baltimore County League of Women Voters treasurer. She was a member of the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church.

Mrs. McKechnie was a music patron and sponsored pianist Tamara Trykar Lu to study with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory. She attended the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and made friends among its musicians. Her love of music led her to be a frequent patron of Pro Musica Rara, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

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She supported the Thomas More Project, a tutoring program for children in the former Murphy Homes neighborhood of West Baltimore. She tutored at the old St. Pius V Church and at Viva House.

She also supported the Jewish Studies Program, which provides funding for a Jew to teach Scripture and Holocaust studies at Catholic schools.

"It is aimed at fostering mutual respect among Jews, Christians and the unchurched via collegial work and study. The program was highly successful at Cardinal Gibbons High School until the archdiocese closed the school and has been extraordinarily successful at St. Frances Academy for many years," said her son, Andrew Tomlinson of Mount Washington.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. June 13 at the Broadmead Retirement Community, 13801 York Road in Cockeysville.

In addition to her son, survivors include her husband of 36 years, A. Randell McKechnie, a retired intelligence linguist; another son, Dr. W. Craig Tomlinson of New York City; a brother, James Ullrich of Mount Clemens; and three grandsons. Her marriage to William Tomlinson ended in divorce.

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