More than 40 years later, Jim Wilner still remembers the first time he met Rita Devine.
She was cruising down the street in a yellow Cadillac, convertible top down, red hair in the wind, ready to sell him a house. The 55-year-old stepped out of her car wearing a yellow miniskirt and white go-go boots.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Jesus, I’ve never seen anybody like this — except maybe in the movies,’ ” said Wilner, 71, who became a longtime friend. “She was a dynamo, a woman before her time.”
Devine, who died in June at age 98 of cancer at a nursing home in Virginia, sold Wilner his first home and many more after that. She began working at Bogley Real Estate in her 40s during an era when few women held high-profile jobs. By the time she retired from Long & Foster in Ocean City at age 79, Devine had carved out a niche as one of the top-selling Realtors in the region.
“At one point in time, in 1959, she was a single mother of four kids and had just started her real estate career,” said John Devine, her eldest son and a former top executive of Toys R Us. “You would think she would have failed at both. But she succeeded despite the odds. I don’t know how, but she did it.”
Devine devised her own approach to closing sales. When a new subdivision sprang up in the area — Potomac’s Highland Stone neighborhood, say, or one on Liberty Tree Lane in Vienna — she bought two houses: one for her family to live in, another to serve as a 24-hour model home.
“Everybody else only had open houses from noon to 4 on Saturdays,” said her son Brian, 71, currently the chairman of the board of Petco. “She came up with her own way to sell real estate, and she was extraordinarily successful.”
In the 1960s, when IBM opened a facility in Gaithersburg, Devine went straight to the top, meeting with executives and offering them help. She sold homes to dozens of employees that way.
“She was smart as a whip,” Wilner said. “She could sell you anything. These days, she could have been the CEO of any company and run it well — she was that smart, and she had a knack for working with people.”
Devine’s clients — who included Bobby Kennedy and officials at the World Bank — called at all hours. Her daughter, Rita Marie Grace, remembers the time when someone telephoned wanting to buy a house on Christmas Eve. Devine summoned her two younger children, then ages 9 and 6, and headed out the door.
“We got bundled up and trudged through the snow,” Grace said. “My younger brother and I, we knew to be quiet. We realized this was our mother’s way of providing what we needed for our family.”
Devine was born in Brooklyn in 1915. She married her high school sweetheart at age 21. When Jackproposed, he got down on one knee and sang her two favorite songs: Frank Sinatra’s “For You” and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Under a Blanket of Blue.”
The couple later moved to Chevy Chase with their four children. Devine worked as a French teacher and spent four years as a DJ for the “Musicale” radio program in Washington.
But, eventually, Jack left. Devine supported her children on her own. She remarried, to Walter Oehrke, a patent lawyer, in 1973. He died of cancer the same year.
“It was a time of great sadness for my mother,” said Grace, a missionary who worked in the former Soviet Union. “She and Walter had made travel plans and retirement plans — really happy things, and all that was gone. But she never revealed her sorrow to others.”
Devine continued to immerse herself in her work. She eventually moved to Ocean City and sold homes there. In the winters, Devine headed to Satellite Beach, Fla., where she hosted gatherings for newcomers, before moving back to Chevy Chase, where she lived with her youngest son, Terence. Devine had 12 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
“She had a gift for people,” Brian said. “If you went with her to a party, she talked to just about everybody there.”
Of her four children, the eldest two followed in Devine’s footsteps, becoming businessmen who led billion-dollar enterprises. Both got their start at Toys R Us. John, who named the company’s mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe, eventually became its chief operating officer. Brian went on to become chief executive of Petco for 14 years and still remains on the company’s board.
“She devoted a tremendous amount of time to her work — and we saw that,” Brian said. “She was obviously very driven. We got that from our mother.”
Devine never wanted to blend into a crowd. She liked her nails brightly painted and her hair dyed red. She wore big gemstones and, until her 70s, very high heels.
“She wasn’t shy,” Grace said. “If we were at a restaurant and she saw a piano, she would just get up and start singing. She would dance around and twirl.”
Devine sang along with the pianist at Blackie’s House of Beef and belted out Irish tunes at the Dubliner Restaurant until her 90s. At age 93, she flew to London with Terence for a reunion concert of the English rock band the Cure, after they won a pair of tickets from a local radio station.
“If anybody ever deserved a long, fun-filled life, it was Rita Devine,” said Wilner, who lives in Cabin John. “There was never a boring moment with that woman — not one.”
Abha Bhattarai is a Capital Business staff writer.
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