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Staying In Touch

'Cross Section Of Goofy People' Still Share Their Lives

By Janice Podsada | Courant Staff Writer

April 02, 2008

Every few years, whenever the spirit calls out, someone organizes a company reunion for O'Neal & Prelle, one of Connecticut's oldest advertising agencies.

Never mind that the former Hartford agency closed nearly eight years ago after a string of business blows sent it into a nose dive.

O&P may have forever vacated its brownstone offices at 95 Elm St., but many of the people who worked there have never checked out of one another's lives.

Monday night, more than 50 of the agency's former employees gathered at a Hartford restaurant to exchange business cards and belly laughs at a get-together that felt more like a raucous college homecoming than a workplace reunion.

Former co-workers Lisa Feliciano and Carolyn Hebert founded a friendship there in 1997 that is still going strong. They said the agency's free-wheeling atmosphere fostered both their friendship and professional skills.

"They gave us the room to be creative, a lot of autonomy," Hebert said.

In its heyday, O&P employed more than 40 and had about $25 million in billings. Founded in 1934, the firm built a client list that included the Connecticut Lottery, the state Department of Tourism, St. Francis Hospital, Bradley International Airport, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Connecticut and Connecticut Toyota Dealers.

Feliciano reminisced about her sliver of an office overlooking Bushnell Park and about Jesse, the free-ranging company dog.

"We were really connected to downtown Hartford," Feliciano said.

Geryl Rose and Joanne Morrison also launched a long-lasting friendship at the agency.

"I loved the way Geryl wrote. She was fun and irreverent," Morrison said Monday as the two hovered near a table in the corner of the restaurant's banquet room that was covered with newspaper clippings and photographs from the 1970s and 80s.

The largest photograph, a black and white staff portrait circa 1976, depicted a circle of 15 men and women holding champagne glasses aloft, their beaming faces reflected in a shiny tabletop in front of them. No one quite remembered the occasion, but 1976 was the year the firm landed its first big account, the Connecticut Lottery, said Harry Viens, who helped organize the reunion.

"O'Neal & Prelle was a training ground for many of Connecticut's advertising professionals," Viens said.

By 2000, however, the agency was foundering, having lost several key accounts.

In July of that year, William W. Ervin, O&P's chairman and chief executive, announced the agency's closure after 66 years in business.

When the agency closed, it was like a "family breaking apart," Hebert said.

Wally Prelle, a former window dresser, founded F.W. Prelle Advertising Service in 1934 across the street from his former employer and the agency's first client, G. Fox & Co.

In the early years, the firm's stock in trade consisted of catalogs and trade magazine ads for ball bearings and machine tools, said William O'Neal, who bought the agency from Prelle in 1973.

"It reflected industrial Connecticut," said O'Neal, who hosted Monday's event.

O'Neal changed the company's name and its target audience.

"My goal was to have a balance of 60 percent consumer advertising and the rest business-to-business," he said.

O'Neal, a New York-based advertising executive, was in his 20s when he decided to buy his own agency, a decision provoked by a transit strike that left him stranded and fuming on a New York City street corner.

"I was just screaming 'What are you doing here? You're a country boy. You grew up in Indiana!'" O'Neal said.

He made inquiries. A few months later, he was answered by Wally Prelle.

O'Neal's love for Connecticut's 18th century architecture sealed the deal.

"I had gotten cold feet, and Wally said he'd found an 18th century house for me."

Artist Randy Gilman, who worked as the firm's art director for eight years, said he still uses principles he learned at O&P in his own artwork.

"I learned how to snip away and focus on the story you need to tell," said Gilman, the creator of "Daisy's Dream," a Frisbee-catching cow that he created for CowParade 2000. Today, the 14-foot tall sculpture welcomes visitors to Bradley International Airport

In 1993, O'Neal sold O&P to William Quirk.

"When I sold it, we were the 14th largest ad agency in the Northeast, not including New York," O' Neal said.

Quirk continued the firm's tradition of nurturing the innovative and creative.

"We attracted an interesting cross section of goofy people," Quirk said.

As Monday's event came to a close, many former O&P employees were already talking about when to hold the next reunion.

"There was camaraderie and creativity," Hebert said. "While there may have been client stress, there wasn't internal stress."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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