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Fran Udell dies; former London Jewelers president was 94

Fran Udell, 94, seen in an undated photo,

Fran Udell, 94, seen in an undated photo, was president of London Jewelers from 1945 to 1990.

Fran Udell, 94, whose drive and integrity helped her and her husband transform a family watch and clock repair shop into London Jewelers, died after a short illness Saturday at her Glen Cove home, her two sons said.

Their mother's gift for sensing when something wasn't quite right -- and her insistence on correcting it -- was a big reason for her success in creating such a powerhouse Long Island luxury brand while also raising an uncommonly close-knit family, according to her sons, Mark Udell of Glen Cove and Ira Udell of Manhasset.

"To her, that was the most important thing . . . always being a good person and always doing the right thing," said Mark, chief executive of the family-owned business. "That's more important than anything you can do in life, that's more important than money, it's your reputation and who you are, and how you conduct yourself."

Her family came first. "She loved being with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and most important, she loved to sit with everybody and kind of philosophize . . . about life, you know, and what it takes to be a mensch," he said.

Mark's wife, Candy, is the president of the firm, which now has five locations: Glen Cove, Greenvale, Manhasset, East Hampton and Southampton.

The company was founded by Udell's father, Charles London, a self-taught clockmaker who immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1923. Settling in Glen Cove, he established a clock and repair business; his clients were North Shore mansion owners.

Six years later, London was able to bring his wife, Ida, son, Harry, and two daughters Rita, the elder, and Udell from Poland to join him. None of the new arrivals spoke English when they arrived, Udell's sons noted.

This is how Udell described her first visit to the store for the company's website: "It was a tiny, dark, humble shop that was built with dreams of hope, freedom and joy."

After graduating from high school in Glen Cove, she became an ambulance driver for Mitchel Field, a U.S. Army Air Forces base on the Hempstead Plains, during World War II.

In 1939, a blind date with Mayer Udell, a sweater manufacturer, started a relationship that led to their marriage seven years later. Her father helped select a special engagement ring, according to the company's website. Her husband, who died last year at 96, also was born in Poland, where he helped run a family farm until 1939 when, as World War II was beginning, his mother insisted he leave for his safety. She died in the Holocaust, as did a sister.

Not long after the marriage, Mayer sold his two sweater factories and invested in London Jewelers. He and Udell worked six days a week with her father and expanded the business into fine jewelry, the company said.

Mayer was chairman from 1947 until 1990; his wife was president from 1945 to 1990.

Mark Udell said his mother was known for prevailing when integrity and honesty were involved.

"She was a force of nature, she would not accept 'No' for an answer -- that was just a starting point," agreed Ira Udell, chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Manhasset, and chairman of ophthalmology at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine in Hempstead.

Further, he said: "She had an uncanny ability to sense something wasn't right, something about her ability to understand and detect subtleties in your conversation."

This talent empowered her in business negotiations, he said. It also helped her protect her family. "You couldn't really lie to her, or tell a white lie," he said.

In addition to her sons, she is survived by five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Services will be held Monday at 11:30 a.m. at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove, where Udell served as president of the Sisterhood. She will be interred at New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon.