Edith Barr Dunn said that at 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29, she wanted to buy her friends one final cocktail. It wasn’t a wish. It was a declaration.
Two days later, more than 125 of her friends gathered at Marina Jack. One by one, they took turns sitting next to the famed Stetson hat lady — who chose a white rhinestone-studded Stetson for the occasion — sharing their favorite memories of her over the microphone for the crowd to hear.
Employees from the old Shenkel’s restaurant on Longboat Key spoke about her famous saying:
“If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”
It was a motto that reflected Dunn’s philosophy that cleanliness is next to godliness, a principle she stressed at her restaurant.
Friend Bernie Gottshalk — a former Shenkel’s employee — talked about the dress Gottshalk wasn’t wearing that night: She had worn it to the funeral for Barr Dunn’s son, Kenny Barr, after his death last summer. She also wore the dress a couple months later to a service for her mother.
Barr Dunn, known for both her directness and her style, told Gottshalk she looked fat.
“I went home and gave it to the thrift store,” Gottshalk said. “I never wanted her to see me in that dress again.”
Friends sat beside Barr Dunn and shared their memories, often holding her hand. She hadn’t just influenced their fashion choices.
The late Kenny Barr’s business partner in the Sports Page on Main Street, Bobby Richards, told about how when they were negotiating space, the owner wanted 10% more than they believed the building was worth. They went to Barr Dunn for advice. She told them: “He owns it. You want it.”
Jack Thompson spoke about the seeds she planted in him that spurred him to volunteer throughout the community.
“Today, the seed is fully grown,” Thompson told Barr Dunn. “Today, I have my own fundraising thing I founded, and that’s helping Purple Heart warriors who have lost their leg or legs while serving in action in a combat arena.”
“The world is a better place because of Edith Barr Dunn,” he said.
The stories varied, but the common theme was this:
“It was a continuous repetition of how much they loved her,” Gottshalk said.
Barr Dunn took in the memories from her wheelchair along with her signature drink: a martini. As usual, she was the last to leave the party.
She returned to her Marina Tower condo unit and stayed up until 2:15 a.m. with her niece Susan Randall. She opened the gifts her friends had brought her, including candies to indulge her famed sweet tooth, candles and fuzzy slippers with Valentine’s hearts to soothe her pain from the ulcers on her feet. She reminisced and thumbed through an album with clips of the many newspaper stories that featured the lady with the Stetson hat and Mercedes who was a Longboat Key and Sarasota icon.
As they reminisced, Barr Dunn and Randall tried to piece together from the pictures exactly when Barr Dunn had become the Stetson hat lady.
(They never figured it out, but Barr Dunn got her first one from Morris Rosenthal, CEO of Stetson Hats Co. Her collection eventually grew to more than 600, although she had donated most of her hats to charities in recent years.)
The following Tuesday, she indulged her sweet tooth one last time when she ate a chocolate turtle. The next day, Wednesday, Feb. 4, Barr Dunn died. She was 94.
The program she had given partygoers four days earlier featured Barr Dunn, clad in a red suit and hat.
“It’s been a great life!” it said.
Making her luck
Like her final party, everything in Barr Dunn’s life was planned.
She attributed her success in her 35 years as owner of Shenkel’s restaurant to a three-part formula: good food, service and cleanliness.
She planned her time meticulously, expecting everything to run on time, whether it was a board meeting, lunch or meeting with bankers. When the Sports Page was open, her Friday night plans always included meeting up with old friends at the restaurant.
She didn’t wait around for people to step up and volunteer when it came to her charitable work that included organizing 50/50 raffles at the St. Jude Gourmet Luncheon and later, the Longboat Key Gourmet Lawn Party. She also supported charities such as Toys for Tots, Catholic Charities and United Way, to name a few.
“She wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said retired Longboat Observer Senior Editor Dora Walters, who befriended Barr Dunn more than 40 years ago. “Her ability was to con or convince people into joining her.”
When someone told her he or she couldn’t volunteer, she reminded them, “But it’s for the children.”
She was a skilled gambler, especially when it came to gin rummy and poker, and she always played for money.
She stated on the first page of her 1986 autobiography “Lady From Longboat Key” that unlike many women, she didn’t marry money. She made it.
The book outlines her humble beginnings.
Born Oct. 20, 1920, in Pontrypidd, Wales, she was the daughter of a coalminer who came home each night with a lunch bucket, lantern and sooty face.
Her start as an entrepreneur came when she was 4 and saw her mother drop a coin into the tattered cup of a singing beggar. That afternoon, her parents realized that young Edith had disappeared. They found her on the same street corner where the beggar had been standing, singing to passersby with one of her mother’s best teacups in hand.
In 1932, Barr Dunn immigrated with her family to Chicago. She wasn’t much of a student and wound up in summer school every year. After summer school classes in the morning, she got an education in capitalism, selling ice cream bars from a wagon for a company called Alice and Bill’s.
She found success as a model and later married Loyall Dunn and had two sons, Kenneth and Lee. The couple later divorced, and Barr Dunn moved in the early 1950s to Sarasota, where her parents and sister and brother-in-law, Nell and Rich Shenkel, had opened the Waffle Shop Restaurant.
Barr Dunn started as an employee but eventually bought the Waffle Shop. Later, she opened Barr’s Restaurant, where she met her second husband, Gus Dunn, who dined there every night after losing his wife in 1959.
The couple married in 1960. Barr Dunn later sold Barr’s, planning to retire. But she quickly returned to the restaurant business after buying Shenkel’s, a restaurant her sister-in-law and brother had opened on the Key.
Barr Dunn and her son, Kenny, spent the next 35 years operating the restaurant. Under Barr Dunn’s ownership, the restaurant became so popular that there was often a long line for Sunday breakfast. She made the pies from scratch and used a deck of cards to remember who was next in line, saying “Queen of diamonds! You’re table’s ready.”
Barr Dunn also used the restaurant to support an array of charitable organizations in the community. The restaurant was the site of breakfast meetings for the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key and hosted countless benefits for various causes.
Barr Dunn and her son closed Shenkel’s in 1994. She later sold the property in 2003 for $2 million. She had purchased it for $110,000 in 1961.
In a 2009 interview with the Longboat Observer, Barr Dunn said that a decade and a half into retirement, her business cards still said “restaurant consultant” — a role she had played for many years since closing Shenkel’s that she hadn’t played in years.
Still, people frequently approached her and told her how much they loved Shenkel’s. That, she said, always made her smile.
Acts of kindness
Barr Dunn continued to be a local celebrity in retirement.
In the Downtown Sarasota Holiday Parade, she rode in a Mercedes stuffed with 100 teddy bears next to a Marine for Toys for Tots. She recruited friend Sylvia Babineau to drive, telling her it would be good for her business because people would see her.
Instead, it was Barr Dunn who was seen, in her white mink Stetson hat, waving to the cameras.
“Of course, I was down really low at the bottom trying to see because of all the teddy bears,” Babineau said.
Barr Dunn was a frequent bell-ringer during the holiday season outside of Longboat Key Publix through 2013, when she was 93.
“She would put her Santa hat on, and she would dance and have her boom box playing Christmas carols, sometimes for four or five hours,” Babineau said.
But Barr Dunn wasn’t public about many of her acts of charity.
After popular Longboat Key entertainer Big Mama, who sang at Shenkel’s, had a heart attack, and knowing she had family members to take care of, the Dunns kept paying her until she recovered.
The Dunns loved their longtime, late housekeeper, Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor, who lived in Newtown, worked 48 years for the Dunns. Taylor was a horrible driver, Dunn told her friends, but she nevertheless bought Taylor several new cars over the years — with cash, right off the dealer lots. When Taylor died, Dunn told her friend Nancy Dalton: “I want the biggest flower arrangement you can get.”
For several years, after one of her former dishwashers moved into a nursing home, Dunn would buy him clothes and go the nursing home a couple times of week. She played gin with him. Dunn told her friends, “He was the best dishwasher anyone ever had.”
She helped employees pay the rent during hard times and offered to help them meet their goals by offering to hold onto their money so they wouldn’t spend it.
Her generosity extended to friends through simple acts of kindness.
Dalton, who befriended Barr Dunn during a bridge game, stopped driving at night. As dusk approached, Barr Dunn would encourage her to go home, then call to ensure she had made it home safely.
Her thank-you notes arrived so quickly that friends joked that she pre-wrote them.
In the days leading up to her death, Barr Dunn continued to take communion daily and attend Sunday Mass at St. Martha’s Catholic Church in Sarasota. She constantly told friends how blessed she was.
“Every day, she would say, ‘I’m so blessed. There’s no one more blessed than me,’” Dalton said.
Gottshalk said she learned this lesson from Barr Dunn.
“Just be nice to people,” she said. “And also have fun.”
Dunn was preceded in death by her husband, Gus, and sons, Kenneth Barr and Loyall Barr II.
Service for Edith Barr Dunn
When: 1:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 11
Where: St. Martha’s Catholic Church, 200 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Tidewell Hospice, tidewell.org.
Words of wisdom
“Do what works.”
— Barr Dunn wrote in her autobiography that “Do what works” was her business philosophy. She developed that sense by doing everything in the restaurant business from scrubbing the garbage cans to being the boss.
“If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”
— Barr Dunn believed that cleanliness was essential in the restaurant business. The saying is well-known to her former restaurant employees.
“I have a kitchen because
it came with the house.”
— A sign on Barr Dunn’s refrigerator revealed the truth: The famed restaurateur never cooked in retirement. Instead, Barr Dunn dined out with friends for every meal. The only item she kept in her refrigerator was Publix ice cream.
“It’s nice to be important. But it’s more important to be nice.”
— Barr Dunn’s personal philosophy needs no explanation.
This article was updated at 4 p.m. Feb. 11 to correct the date of Edith Barr Dunn's death.