Mary Bell Grempler, a colorful real estate saleswoman whose pioneering firm grew to become the No. 1 independently owned real estate business in the state, died Monday of emphysema at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
The Stevenson resident was 81.
"Mary Bell was very independent and highly spirited. She was a true character among women and men and quite a lady," said Helen Delich Bentley, former congresswoman and federal maritime commissioner.
"She was a person who never hesitated to let you know exactly what she thought," said Mrs. Bentley, a longtime friend. "She broke the glass ceiling for women early because she led the track for women entering the real estate business."
A daughter of a Great Northern Railway conductor and a homemaker, the former Mary Bell Hamilton was born one of eight in Whitefish, Mont., where she grew up.
After graduating from high school, Mrs. Grempler earned a bachelor's degree in nursing in 1952 from Montana State College.
She met her future husband, Donald E. Grempler, an Air Force pilot and Korean War veteran, in a bar in Great Falls, Mont., the city in which she was training to be a nurse.
Having left the Air Force, he was a pilot for Trans-Texas Airlines. They married in 1953 and moved to Baltimore the next year, when she took a nursing job at the old veterans hospital on Loch Raven Boulevard, and he went to work at Bendix Radio Corp. in Towson as director of flight research.
Mrs. Grempler's path to business success began with the purchase of a black dress.
"I wanted to buy some clothes. And I saw this sexy black dress at Hochschild's and I bought the thing," she recalled in a 1985 interview with The Evening Sun. "I thought to myself how am I going to pay for it."
It was her husband who insisted that her salary go into a savings account so they could purchase their first home. Now suffering from buyer's remorse, Mrs. Grempler feared his anger and hid the dress under the bed.
"I said I'll get a job selling because I was one of those people that always had to go around and collect for everybody's shower gifts and all the other organizations at the hospital," she said in the interview. "Everybody said 'God, you could sell anything.'"
Mrs. Grempler spotted an ad in a newspaper for a part-time real estate salesperson.
"I didn't know anything about real estate. In those days, you didn't have to go to class. You answered 10 questions and got your license," she said in the interview.
After five successful years working with various real estate firms, she opened her own in 1960. Fearing she wouldn't be taken seriously in an industry that was male-dominated, she named the company Donald E. Grempler Realty Inc.
Four years later, her husband gave up commercial flying and joined her in the business, convinced he could make more money selling houses than being a pilot.
Grempler "For Sale" signs proliferated throughout the state, and by the 1970s they were in the front yards of 15 percent of the homes sold in the Baltimore metropolitan area as the firm became a real estate powerhouse.
"Everybody says to me, 'Did you have a business plan?' I didn't do any of that. I just happened to be lucky," she said in The Evening Sun interview. "I happened to be in Baltimore County, which was probably one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. I happened to get into an industry that definitely needed advances made in it."
Mrs. Grempler brought her own brand of scrappiness and competitiveness to the business.
In a 1993 story, The Baltimore Sun described her as "part siren, part steamroller. Mae West meets Annie Oakley."
"The first words that come to my mind are "exciting," "competitive" and "unpredictable." She had drive and spirit and I liked her for that," said James P. O'Conor of Lutherville, a founder of realty firm O'Conor, Piper & Flynn.
"She was dynamic, had endless energy and was innovative. She and her husband were the first to adapt computer technology to our industry in the 1960s," he said. "I always had a good relationship with her."
Mr. O'Conor recalled the days when women were not allowed to attend the annual Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors' black tie banquet.
"I remember two things. I was the youngest member, and there wasn't a woman in the room. Mary Bell was a pioneer. She promoted women, who today now dominate the industry," said Mr. O'Conor.
The couple also added a real estate school to their business, as well as mortgage, title and insurance companies. In 1980, she was named one of the top 10 Realtors in the country in Robert L. Shook's book, "The Real Estate People."
The couple became so successful, they purchased Villa Vista, a sprawling, Spanish-style seven-bedroom Green Spring Valley estate.
Their relationship later turned stormy, and in 1983, they separated. Even though they were divorced in 1991, they continued their business relationship.
By the time Grempler Realty Inc. was sold in 2000 to Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. for $10 million, it had grown to 22 offices and employed more than 800 sales associates.
Mr. Grempler died in 2001.
Reflecting on her life, Mrs. Grempler told The Baltimore Sun in a 1993 interview, "I'm proud of every wrinkle I've got. I've earned them. Age is more about how you feel anyway."
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. July 22 at Towson United Methodist Church, 501 Hampton Lane.
Surviving are two sons, Donald R. Grempler of Loganville, Pa., and James L. Grempler of Key West, Fla.; three brothers, Leonard Hamilton and Donald Hamilton, both of Spokane, Wash., and Glen Hamilton of Wasilla, Alaska; a sister, Sandy Hamilton of Maui, Hawaii; five grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and her companion of 28 years, Brian Raymond.