Obituaries

Mary J. Kakas, 78, tireless philanthropist and fur company CEO

Mrs. Kakas rose from humble beginnings to become the CEO and public face of a company.
Michael Blanchard
Mrs. Kakas rose from humble beginnings to become the CEO and public face of a company.

Joseph Kennedy III was a bit out of breath as he introduced Mary J. Kakas as a philanthropy hero at an American Red Cross awards ceremony in 2013, and who could blame him?

The congressman was among the latest generation in his family to befriend Mrs. Kakas, and he raced through some of her many accomplishments. A full accounting would have taken too much time.

“She keeps herself pretty busy,” Kennedy said as he recognized her service to boards and organizations such as the Rogerson Communities, which provide health care and housing for elderly and low-income residents; the Massachusetts 9/11 Fund; the Boston Police Activities League; Susan G. Komen; Landmarks Orchestra; and the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund. At the end, Kennedy paused and quipped: “Mary, thank you for making the rest of us look so bad.”

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And she did so, he added, by doing so much good.

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Mrs. Kakas, who formerly was president and chief executive of Edward F. Kakas & Sons, a fur company in her former husband’s family for nearly a century and a half, died May 24 in Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was being treated for heart ailments. She was 78 and also had served as president of her condominium association at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Boston.

She had spent decades with the fur company and played a key role more than 20 years ago in moving the business from Newbury Street, its home for seven decades, to Albany Street. Lowering the company’s overhead made sense for the business and its customers, she told the Globe then.

“If we are to serve the women of the ’90s, we need to be out there so we can offer furs at lower prices,” she said. “We needed to open a high-quality outlet.”

Mrs. Kakas had a lifetime of experience finding a balance between high quality and the economics of household budgets. She was the leader of the company and, for many years, its public face — posing in advertisements wearing the furs she sold.

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To the casual observer, the elegance of the ads obscured the biography of a woman who did not begin life stepping across a street clad in opulent wares.

“She was a fashionable person, but she was very modest and she came from humble beginnings,” said her son Will Berkeley of Hingham.

Mrs. Kakas started life in South Boston and spent her formative years in Dorchester. After her father died, she worked to help support her mother and younger brothers.

“When people would meet her, they’d say she was the happiest person they ever met who had three jobs at the same time,” said her other son, Joe Berkeley of Hull. “She got to where she was with her work ethic, but she did it with a sense of style and a sense of purpose.”

And while that sense of style was an obvious fit for her years with the fur company, Will said, she also put it to use as a philanthropist. Through her efforts, and by inspiring others, she helped raise millions, he added.

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Among the many other organizations she served as a board member, adviser, or fund-raiser were the Women’s Lunch Place, Rosie’s Place, Mass. General, the Police Athletic League, the American Red Cross, Friends of Copley Square, the Kids Clothes Club, Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, Lyric Stage Co., Dress for Success, and the New England Women Business Owners organization.

“Her real life journey,” said Will, “began in retirement.”

The oldest of three siblings, Mary J. Walsh was the daughter of Martin Walsh and the former Catherine Carr. Her mother was from Galway, Ireland, and was a domestic worker upon arriving in Boston. Her father, who emigrated from Gort, a town in County Galway, worked in South Station for the Boston and Maine Railroad in the postal and mail departments.

A family story has it that when Mrs. Kakas was not yet school age, she set out from her home one day to get ice cream and walked several blocks east on Broadway in South Boston until a police officer stopped to ask where she was going as she reached the park by the harbor.

After her family moved to Dorchester, she graduated from Monsignor Ryan Memorial High, a girls’ school, and had started studying at Boston College when her father died of cancer.

“Mary’s responsibility to Dad was to keep the family together,” said her brother Hubert M. Walsh of Irving, Texas. “She worked at part-time jobs and eventually landed a position at Boston Edison.”

It was there that she met Joseph Berkeley Sr., her first husband. They had two sons and their marriage ended in divorce, as did her second marriage, to G. Jordan Kakas Jr.

During her second marriage, Mrs. Kakas became involved with her then-husband’s family business, and eventually was the first woman to lead the company.

In earlier years, she had worked as a model and told Boston Common in 2013 that some might not guess that she “was a Clairol model in the ’60s.”

Away from the boardroom and the sales floor, Mrs. Kakas was an avid tennis player with “a lethal forehand,” said Joe, who didn’t win a singles match with her until he turned 16.

In politics, she supported Democrats such as the Kennedys and President Barack Obama. During a campaign jaunt on a bus for the former president, she sat next to a young man who impressed her with his integrity, and promised to volunteer for him if he ever ran for office. Only after leaving the bus did she learn from a friend that she had been talking with Joseph Kennedy III.

“You have dedicated your life to the best qualities of the human spirit: You are innovative, you are gracious, you are fearless,” Kennedy said as he stood at the dais next to Mrs. Kakas at the American Red Cross ceremony. “Thank you for everything that you’ve done to help those in our community, and those who need it most.”

In addition to her sons, Joe and Will, and her brother Hubert, Mrs. Kakas leaves her other brother, Tom J. Walsh of Austin, Texas, and her grandson, William, “who she loved to the moon,” Joe said.

Family and friends will gather to celebrate her life at 1 p.m. June 23 in Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, the latest of her many philanthropic causes.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Kakas wanted to keep going, even as illness restricted her movements. At one point, she switched to a pediatric IV pole at Mass. General in an attempt to slip away from the hospital against the wishes of her doctors and ride off with the shorter pole sticking out of the car’s sunroof.

“She was a phenomenal mother and she was incredibly fun,” Joe said. “She clung to life. She clung to fashion. She clung to hope. She never gave up.”

Because her life was so full and so filled with unique twists and turns, “I always thought she should write a book,” he added. “It turns out she wrote two. I’m one of them and my brother is the other.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.