Mary Alma Lears, Walters docent

Mary Alma O'Connor Lears, a former Walters Art Museum volunteer guide whose keen eyes alerted officials to a $1 million theft later linked to a gallery security guard, died of lung disease Jan. 24 at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Towson and former Roland Park resident was 88.

Born Mary Alma O'Connor in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Dr. John A. O'Connor, chief surgeon of the Baltimore Police Department and medical examiner, and Alma Obrecht, a homemaker.

Raised in Govans and on Springlake Way in Homeland, she was a 1942 graduate of Notre Dame Preparatory School and was class president all four years. She earned a degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art and was a student teacher during World War II.

"She had a talent for drawing and watercolor painting and sketched her children when we were young. Her handwriting was impeccable," said her daughter, Jane Francis Lears of Eldersburg. "She loved art history and that was what drew her to the Walters."

After her 1946 marriage to James Lawrence Lears, they founded Charles Engineering Co. Inc. She was corporate secretary for the family-run general contracting company during its early days, when it built parts of the Lake Falls neighborhood.

While raising her family, Mrs. Lears volunteered and became a member of the board of Children's Hospital of Maryland.

In 1977, she became a docent at what is now the Walters Art Museum and held the volunteer post for more than two decades. After she gave up the job, she was named "docent emeritus."

"She had a wonderful skill of working with young students to get them to talk about art and express themselves," said John Shields, Walters manager of docents and internship programs. "She was also a kind and gentle person."

Family members said that during the summer of 1988, she was leading a Walters tour when she noted that an 8-inch-tall Chinese Peach Bloom vase, purchased by William Walters in the 1880s for $18,000, was not in its usual place.

"She loved that vase and thought it was curious that it was missing. She thought there was a problem," her daughter said. "She immediately contacted the director of education and that led to the discovery of more missing objects."

According to news accounts in The Baltimore Sun, Walters curators subsequently conducted a search and found that between July 21 and Aug. 16, 1988, art objects valued at $1 million were stolen. Many, including the Peach Bloom vase, were later recovered from the Govans home of a night security guard who later pleaded guilty in a plea bargain agreement.

Mrs. Lears' role in the discovery of the theft was not publicized at the time.

"She called me to say the Peach Bloom vase was not there," said Joan Feldman, a Bolton Hill resident who is a retired Walters official. "I called the [museum] registrar and there was a dead silence. That was there first indication there had been a theft."

Mrs. Feldman recalled Mrs. Lears as an "extraordinarily gifted person who could teach kindergarten children or senior citizens."

Gary Vikan, the museum's director, recalled the incident and her role in bringing the theft to the attention of museum officials.

"Everyone just loved her," said Mr. Vikan. "She was a fantastic docent. She had a wonderful smile. In a way she reminded me of my mother."

Mrs. Lears was a member of Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Bolton Hill and also volunteered at its outreach programs.

"I am sure she never had an enemy," said Sister Jane Coyle, a former pastoral director at the church who now lives in Philadelphia. "She was one of those people who thought of everyone else first."

Mrs. Lears was a newspaper reader who also liked to solve The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. She also read art history, biographies and fiction. She and her husband sailed down the Nile to see the pyramids and other Egyptian antiquities. She also visited Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Ireland.

"She had a great gift for friendship and a natural hospitality that made all feel welcome in her presence," said her daughter, who added that after moving to the Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson in 2011, she welcomed new residents by inviting them to dinner.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, Lafayette and Mount Royal avenues.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include two sons, John Michael Lears of Towson and Patrick Andrew Lears of London; three other daughters, Sister Louise Holliday Lears of Cincinnati, Margaret Ellen Lears of Towson and Mary Kathleen Lears of Parkville; 10 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Her husband of 56 years died in 2002. A son, James Lawrence Lears Jr., also died in 2002.

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