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Small shoes, big personality
March 8, 2019

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LAKE PLACID - Conni Cross was a force of nature - not just for the thousands of flowers she planted along the streets of this village, but because she was a woman who got things done.

"There was too much personality for the size of her body," said Lake Placid Community Beautification Association director Cherise Bixler, who took over the job from Cross in 2016. "If you've only known her over the phone, you would have never pictured this tiny, little person. She was larger than life."

Small in stature and big in energy, Cross was the co-founder of Lake Placid Beautification. She died Sunday, March 3 at the age of 87. As soon as people heard the news, tributes began showing up on Facebook.

On Monday, the Lake Placid Beautification Facebook page posted, "Yesterday we lost our founder, Conni Cross. She was a very special woman - kind, loving, and generous. She was also determined, strong, hard-working, and feisty. Conni will forever be both missed and remembered. She will always be the Beautification Angel."

On the village of Lake Placid Facebook page, Mayor Craig Randall posted, "It is with sorrow that the Village of Lake Placid acknowledges the passing of Conni Devlin Cross. Conni was the founder and driving force for many years of the Lake Placid Beautification Program. She worked tirelessly and passionately to beautify our community with flowers, plantings, and holiday decorations for the enjoyment of all. Our deepest sympathies to Conni's family and friends."

Sue (Ortloff) Cameron, who grew up on the same street as Cross in Lake Placid, said they didn't have much contact with each other until the 1990s. That's when Cross approached Cameron to be a part of Lake Placid Beautification.

"I'm forever grateful that Conni asked me and that I agreed to join in," Cameron wrote. "From that time, I learned so much from this amazing woman. Conni was a person who never stopped 'doing.' No matter what project she was involved with, she gave it everything she had."

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Conni's life

Constance "Conni" (Devlin) Cross was born on Sept. 16, 1931, in Lake Placid to Mae and Hurley Devlin. She graduated from the Lake Placid High School in 1950 and from Syracuse University with a degree in radio and television, and then earned a master's degree in education at Plattsburgh State University.

She began teaching elementary school children in Ballston Spa, then Maryland, and eventually moved back to Lake Placid. She taught kindergarten at the Keene Central School from 1968 to 1988.

Cross met her husband Ben in 1969 and married him in 1972. They began the Wine and Spirit Shoppe on Saranac Avenue.

In the summer of 1988, Cross and family friend Leslie Thivierge took it upon themselves to water and take care of flowers along Main Street, Lake Placid. It became a bigger task than one person could do, as Thivierge moved away for a job, and with the help of local attorney Norman Hess, they formed the nonprofit Lake Placid Community Beautification Association.

Over the years, Cross has been honored by many organizations.

She received Eckerd Pharmacy's "Salute to Women Award," the Lake Placid/Essex County Visitors Bureau's "Bouquet of the Month" and Volunteer of the Year from the Garden Club of Lake Placid and Adirondack Daily Enterprise/Lake Placid News.

In 2006, she was inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame along with Johnny Podres, Pete Sears, Favor Smith and Willis Wells. In 2009, she was recognized as the village of Lake Placid and town of North Elba Adult Volunteer of the Year.

During her 2009 acceptance speech at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, she said, "It's wonderful to be honored tonight, but there are so many other people who should also be recognized for all that they do. I couldn't possibly be this involved without the support of our community leaders. It's important to give back to the community and to keep the spirit of volunteering growing."

Cross served on the North Elba Planning Board and Parks and Recreation Committee. She volunteered for the Kennedy Games, FISU Winter World University Games in 1972, 1980 Olympic Winter Games, Winter Goodwill Games in 2000, Hovey Memorial Ski Race, Pee Wee Hockey Association, Ironman Lake Placid triathlon and Tri-Lakes Humane Society. She was a summer playground supervisor for the North Elba Park District, organizer for the Lake Placid spring cleanup program, and a member of the Mirror Lake Watershed Committee and Garden Club of Lake Placid.

In 2013, she was one of the Garden Club's pinup girls for the "Babes in Bloom" 2014 benefit calendar. On the cover of the calendar, she is posing with five other nude models at Triangle Park on state Route 73 behind a Garden Club of Lake Placid banner, barefoot in a bed of daffodils. She was 81 at the time.

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Funeral home garden

On Tuesday and Wednesday, March 5 and 6, Bixler and her staff and board members from Lake Placid Beautification were busy creating a temporary indoor garden in the parlor of the M. B. Clark Funeral Home on Saranac Avenue. With the help of funeral director Mark Clark, work was completed in time for Cross's calling hours Wednesday evening.

"When you walk in here, it's a garden. It's got boatloads of plants, mulch, paving stones and statues," Bixler said.

Flowers and plants included pansies - one of Cross's favorites - daffodils, tulips, geraniums, varieties of dracaena, anthurium, Reiger begonias, peace lilies and Boston ferns.

"There's even a grapefruit tree here," Bixler said.

The arrangements were placed around Cross, flanked by two large planters - one each to honor Ben and Conni - that will be placed at the Newman Road park this summer. Lake Placid Beautification has also purchased a granite bench for the sidewalk around Mirror Lake as a memorial.

In the funeral parlor, a quote from George Bernard Shaw was featured on a poster with a photo of a wildflower field. Cross was fond of this quote:

"I am in the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

That future generation is Bixler - the person Cross trusted to carry on her legacy of beautifying Lake Placid.

"I'm already missing her, and she just left," Bixler said Tuesday. "It's going to be really weird knowing that I can't just call and ask her questions anymore. I'm going to have to wait for the spiritual nudge to push me in the right direction."

Over the past few years, Cross has been helping Bixler with the leadership transition.

"She had so much advice and insight that I never made a big decision without talking to her," Bixler said.

It wasn't easy for Cross to let go of the reins, but her health was failing and she just couldn't do it anymore.

"Even last summer she wasn't always well enough to be able to help me when I needed her. I missed her then," Bixler said. "It's a huge weight, knowing the shoes I have to fill. People keep telling me, 'You have big shoes to fill.' They weren't really big shoes, but that was a lot of personality in a little body."

Bixler agrees that Cross was a force of nature.

"Somebody said to me, 'You know, she's probably up there rearranging Heaven.' I said, 'That's probably true. She probably is up there doing some work.' But I have no doubt that she'll be checking in on me. I know she wouldn't leave me completely, but I'm sure she's got bigger projects going on right now."

A Mass of Christian burial was celebrated at 11 a.m. Thursday, March 7 at St. Agnes Catholic Church, with the Rev. John Yonkovig officiating. Burial will be in St. Agnes Cemetery in May.

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