An audience with the Pope might intimidate most people, but Sharon Lee Parker has entertained audiences of her own since she was a little girl, performing on radio and television and loving it.
Parker, the owner and CEO of Boehm Porcelain in Trenton, seems to have enjoyed her encounter with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on May 25. She represented the famed porcelain maker in adding a collection of 18 pieces to the Vatican’s already extensive collection of Boehm creations.
“I was as close to him as any ordinary people could be, but I wasn’t nervous at all,” she told NJ Jewish News days after her May 30 return to her Ewing home. “I was as comfortable as I’ve been meeting ministers and rabbis and cardinals. What was quite fantastic was the feeling of offering an olive branch, as we hope to be doing all around the world.”
Parker, a lifelong member of Hadassah, grew up in Vermont in an area where the few dozen Jewish families held services in a local general dealer’s store. She met many more Jews — and people of all faiths —when she married into the family that owned the legendary Borscht Belt hotel, the Concord, in Kiamesha Lake, NY. As the hotel’s manager of guest relations, she estimated that she greeted as many as two million people.
But still, greeting the pope was not something this grandmother anticipated when she took over the 60-year-old porcelain business two years ago. She bought it in 2009 for the simple reason that she had loved its products for decades.
Over the years, she had come to know the owners, E.M. Boehm and his wife Helen, and their products. “I was so passionate about them,” Parker said, “people would say I was like her daughter.” The Boehms, who have both passed away, sold the company in 2003, but it was one of Helen’s last wishes, Parker said, that she should take it over.
When she heard the new owners planned to close operations in Trenton and move to Europe, where it would become a mass-production venture, Parker said she couldn’t bear the idea. She led a group of investors in buying the institution.
She said it was her way of making sure a unique American art institution stayed — and thrived — in the United States.
“I feel like the gatekeeper,” she said. “We’re losing American companies right and left, and what use is it to make things cheaper overseas when there are no jobs left for our children and grandchildren?”
Boehm’s hand-painted products are on display in major museums and have been presented to Queen Elizabeth II, former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and every United States president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama.
Parker’s connection with the company began in 1972, when she won a Boehm porcelain rose in a raffle, and she began to collect other pieces. When she was ill with cancer nine years ago, that relationship took a new turn. Unable to have fresh flowers in the sterile hospital ward, she asked her husband, George, to bring her that first porcelain rose.
Parker, who lived in Boca Raton, Fla., and now has a home in Ewing, survived a double whammy — Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer. When she recovered, she became a volunteer cancer coach. She has helped more than 1,000 people deal with the disease — and in fact, rushed from the airport on the day she returned from Rome to see a new patient.
She set up a second home in Hackensack, near the specialist who had treated her, Dr. Andre Goy. With his encouragement, she established a cancer research organization, the Life Lover Foundation, and the finely crafted Boehm flowers she commissioned became favorite fund-raising items.
In 2006, Parker brought out a book about her experience with the illness, Look Out Cancer Here I Come! It was a late-in-life career turn for Parker, but the writing life was familiar. Her father wrote about winter sports for The New York Times and served for many years as sports editor of The Palm Beach Daily News in Florida. He wrote until his death at 96 in 2009.