TAMPA — Had she known she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at age 66, Hermanda de Roos O’Connor would have organized a gala or fashionable fundraiser every day of the week to fund a cure.
The social grande dame of Tampa graciously volunteered energy and style to many cultural, educational and health causes. Her hostess and cooking prowess were legendary, one friend proclaiming, "Hermanda can make water taste like champagne." She was generous with her talents, whether preparing a PTA reception or Thanksgiving dinner, a holiday feast she and husband, commercial real estate developer Myles W. O’Connor, celebrated with the same two families for 24 years.
"She had a servant heart but the brain of a CEO," said daughter Meeghan Seoane. "She brought her business acumen and they were lucky to have her. Often it’s one or the other but she really was the total package, being this powerhouse but relishing motherhood."
Mrs. O’Connor, 77, died Sept. 4 of complications from Alzheimer’s in Cincinnati.
Two charities in particular earned her devotion. As a leader of the American Cancer Society’s Sword of Hope Guild, she coordinated the annual Kaleidoscope of Fashion shows, co-chaired the Pelican Ball in 1992 and its successor, the Flamingo Fantasy Ball, in 1995.
The Florida Orchestra was most special to Mrs. O’Connor. In a letter to the editor of the Tampa Tribune in 1994, she wrote: Our musicians are as important as the latest draft choice, and are in a playing field as important as our sports teams. … Not everyone can write a check for $10,000 or $100,000. Those of us who cannot contribute monetarily give countless hours as volunteers to keep the music going.
Mrs. O’Connor raised more than $500,000 for the Florida Orchestra Guild from Designer Showhouses in 1993 and 1995; the annual Prelude fashion show and multiple New Year’s Eve galas.
Of the orchestra’s Night of Nights gala in January 1997, Tampa Bay Times staff writer Lennie Bennett wrote: "Chairwoman Hermanda de Roos O’Connor left no detail to chance in creating the grand fete, from the calligraphy on each place card to the exquisitely wrapped box for every guest that contained a miniature Swarovski crystal piano."
She recreated the city of Venice for the Orchestra’s 1999 Masquerade Ball, inviting patrons to "Unmask the Millennium at Carnevale di Venezia."
Bennett touted Mrs. O’Connor again, noting how she, "dressed in a silk domino decorated with fresh roses. Her face was obscured by a towering mask of black feathers, which made her identifiable only by her throaty laugh."
Born Dec. 30, 1939, in Rotterdam, Holland, Mrs. O’Connor was barely six months old when the German’s aerial bombardment, known as the Rotterdam Blitz, killed nearly 900 people and left 85,000 homeless.
When World War II ended, the deRoos family immigrated to upstate New York, and on Nov. 11, 1954, a grateful 14-year-old took the oath of American citizenship.
As a young New Yorker, she took classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, modeled for the Ford Agency and gained secretarial skills at the Katherine Gibbs School.
Mrs. O’Connor is survived by her husband of 55 years, Myles, daughters Erin, Marijke and Meeghan, their spouses and 10 grandchildren.
A Memorial Mass will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday (Nov. 25) at the Chapel of The Academy of the Holy Names, 3319 Bayshore Blvd., with a reception following in the foyer. Memorials may be sent to the Alzheimer’s Association, (ALZ.org); the Florida Orchestra (floridaorchestra.org) or the Academy of the Holy Names (holynamestpa.org).