Mary J. Kakas in Boston.

Philanthropist and fur executive Mary Kakas, 78, died May 24 at Mass General Hospital.

The cause of death was heart failure, according to her son William Berkeley.

Raised in Boston, Kakas studied at Boston College and went on to work as a model with Maggie Inc., doing regional jobs for Clairol and other companies. Throughout her life, Kakas valued the power of style. During her first marriage to Joseph Berkeley, she put some of those lessons in poise to use, by starting the Mary Berkeley Charm School in Scituate, Mass. After that union ended in divorce in 1975, the following year she married G. Jordan Kakas Jr., whose family had owned Edward F. Kakas & Sons since 1858.

As president of the fur company in the mid-Nineties, she added the title of chief executive officer — a first for the family-owned operation started in 1858. Housed in a four-story Newbury Street building, Kakas Furs was known for its Old World decor with dark wood paneling, antiques, custom-made tables and Oriental rugs. The 16,000-square-foot space included private fitting rooms, a design studio and production.

Kakas once said, “My father-in-law, George Kakas, was my mentor. He was a tough boss, but I earned his respect because of my strong work ethic. He always said, ‘If you love your work, you’ll get in early and stay late.’ He taught me that there is a kernel of goodness in everyone.”

Straightforward and outgoing, Kakas “was an extraordinary salesperson. If a very difficult customer would try on 27 different coats and would still not be happy, she would say to the customer, ‘Buying a fur coat is supposed to be a happy experience. You’re not having much fun. I think you should go down the street, have a cup of tea and a cookie, give it a think and if you want to buy a coat, you should come back and buy a coat. But if you don’t want to, that’s OK. You should just go home and I appreciate you coming in today,’” her son Joe Berkeley said.

In 1996, when women under 30 — a relatively undeveloped sector for the fur industry at that time — started showing interest in buying fur coats, Kakas adapted by offering more affordable options in the $4,500 range. That age range accounted for 20 percent of the retailer’s sales in a span of 12 months, Kakas told WWD at that time. She also increased advertising in local paper and TV to publicize its longest promotion, which stretched from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15. The 16,000-square-foot store wound up amassing $3 million in sales during the fall season.

Born in Boston to Irish parents, Kakas took to sewing her own clothes from mail-order patterns, a practice she kept up when she first became a mother herself. Slim and stylish, Kakas embraced fashion, as well as politics with great interest. On a campaign bus for Barack Obama, she once befriended a young man and unflinchingly offered her support, when he mentioned his own hopes for a political run. Informed afterward that she had been chatting with Joseph Kennedy 3rd, Kakas said with a laugh, “Well, I voted for his grandfather, I’d be happy to vote for him.” her son Joe Berkeley said.

Her Sunday routine included reading five newspapers to be up-to-speed about world events. “At times, people would underestimate her, because they would confuse her flamboyant style with a lack of substance. She would quickly say to them, ‘I have blonde hair, not a blonde brain,’” her son said. “After they spent some time with her, they would realize that she was a very intelligent woman who had both style and substance.”

Even as her health waned, Kakas made an effort with her appearance. “She walked around the hospital in a red and white robe fit for a queen. Some of the doctors said, ‘You look too good to be a sick person. She always did her best to look sharp. She felt if you look good, you feel good,” Joe Berkeley said. “There are some people, where they give up and lose their dignity. She never gave up. She clung to fashion, she clung to hope, she fought for life.”

After receiving last rites from a priest in her hospital room last week, Kakas received her last blowout and makeup touch-up, according to her sons.

A celebration of her life will be held on June 23 at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Mass. In addition to her sons, Kakas is survived by two brothers, Tom and Burt.

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