Legendary Qtown hotel hostess dies

BY SUE FEA
Last updated 05:00 29/09/2010

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She was Queenstown's queen of hospitality in her heyday, running the former Beach House from the late 1930s and then the iconic O'Connell's Hotel from the 1960s.

One of the resort's most legendary hospitality pioneers, Iris O'Connell, died at the grand age of 101 in a Dunedin nursing home this month.

Mrs O'Connell and husband Jim O'Connell, moved to Queenstown from Invercargill in 1937 to buy what was then the nine-room Beach House, along with Mr O'Connell's sister Mary.

"Sometimes I think we must have been pretty foolhardy – it was really stepping out," she told the Mountain Scene newspaper in 1990.

It was a difficult time to launch a business with the onset of World War II, but trade picked up after the war when the Government organised free holidays for returned servicemen.

By the 1960 the pair had expanded, buying the neighbouring Queenstown Borough City Garrison Hall and opening their iconic hotel, O'Connell's, on the site of O'Connell's Pavilion, which still carries their name today.

Her former son-in-law Bryan Douglas, who was married to the late Bernadette O'Connell, said Iris was one of the country's first real businesswoman of that era, juggling what would grow to a family of 10 children with 10-hour days running a hotel.

"In those days women mostly had babies and washed nappies."

But not Iris. Mr Douglas said she was the driving force behind the business which was "the tourist place of Queenstown in its day".

Her daughter Phil O'Connell-Cooper said her mother was known for her innovation, one of the first to develop ensuites to cater for American tourists in the hotel where the motto was always, "you're always welcome at O'Connell's".

All 10 children helped out in the hotel in various roles and their mother was very particular about one thing: "the customer is always right", Ms O'Connell-Cooper said.

Mrs O'Connell was "clear about what she wanted to do" in her business, long before mission statements came into vogue, her daughter said.

Always impeccably presented, she had an eye for fashion.

"She hated being pregnant, one of the worst things about it was the clothes and the maternity smocks ... she loved fashion."

Mrs O'Connell had an incredibly strong Catholic faith and as she became older that took on more of a charismatic influence.

Friends and family say her strong faith contributed greatly to her longevity and success.

"Her faith brought her a lot of joy," Mrs O'Connell-Cooper, herself a former principal of St Joseph's School in Queenstown, said.

Mrs O'Connell was involved in the Queenstown Catholic Women's League from its inception, in Red Cross and served for one term on the Queenstown Borough Council. She was also a founding member of the original Autumn Festival in the district during the early 1960s.

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She was a very generous and gracious person, supplying food to the Dominican sisters who taught at the local school and helping out with their bills when they needed it, as well as assisting other needy families and giving to charities.

"Mum was a very strong woman, who was determined to do the very best for her children."

Former Mayor and Cabinet Minister Warren Cooper, whose parents owned the next door hotel, said Mrs O'Connell was a leader in her field, during those fledgling days of coach tours – an innovator introducing entertainment to her hotel.

"She was the boss" during a time when women in the hospitality industry were normally channelled into housekeeping and waitressing roles.

The hotel staff had a lot of respect for her and she accommodated a lot of young itinerant workers in the town.

"She was a legend – there weren't a large number of people who were ladies in senior management positions (back then)," Mr Cooper said.

Mrs O'Connell, who lost her husband in 1995, is survived by five of her 10 children – three died in infancy and two passed away as adults. She has 27 grandchildren, 37 great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren.

- The Southland Times

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