On a pleasant morning in 1976, Cathy O’Gara was strolling through downtown when a friend stopped to ask if she was working. Almost before she sputtered an answer, Bill Roach of Roach Advertising said, "Be here at 9 a..m. tomorrow. You’re hired."
An inauspicious beginning for one of the pioneers of the ad business in the Virgin Islands, but in an industry known for its creativity, it was a good start.
O’Gara laughs as she recalls her start in a business.
"I had no experience in advertising at all," she says, "I kind of learned by the seat of my pants."
O’Gara begins to relax as she chats. She is almost out of breath as she arrives.
"This is my busy time of year," she explains. "Three to four hours a day on Destination alone."
Since 2003, O’Gara has been editor and point person for the handsome, glossy tourist magazine.
She moved to St. Thomas in 1976 with her husband, Edward Sternberg, who took a position as executive chef at Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel, operating the hotel’s two restaurants, The Terrace and The Rogue’s Galley.
O’Gara stayed with Roach until he sold the agency to Avery Advertising.
"I changed jobs, but kept my same desk," she remarks. But after a while, O’Gara decided to put her experience to the test and opened her own agency, AdPro.
"I started out on Commandant Gade," she says. “The little white-and-red tile building that had been Petersen’s Meat Market for years. My first employee was an after-school student from All Saints High School, just up the street. She was mostly a runner.”
In those days, O’Gara says somewhat wistfully, "Anything in those days could be done in town. A lot of my clients were within walking distance."
The staff sometimes grew to five.
"I had to get a bookkeeper, a couple of artists — it was labor-intensive work." O’Gara says. “Cut and paste, a physical dark room, acid baths. I began using computers in the early ‘90s, which did lots of work lots more quickly."
O’Gara’s industry and perseverance have made her one of the most successful and well-known personalities on the island. And she has hired some of the most interesting personalities on the island, including the late John Rushford.
"Remember ‘Twiggy?’" she asks, with a laugh. "He would tap dance around the office at the slightest whim. When he wasn’t performing, he did some work."
Though O’Gara doesn’t dwell on her accomplishments, she admits to one invaluable talent: "I know how to make stuff look pretty."
She has a strong art and graphics background, graduating from Cooper Union in New York with an art degree, after which she studied at the Art Students League on a Ford Grant scholarship.
If you’ve lived on the island for a while, you are sure to have witnessed O’Gara’s creative mark: The perky little frog welcoming you to Herve’ Restaurant on Government Hill. The small diamond dotting the “I” over Diamonds International. The sugar mill denoting Blackbeard’s Castle as a national historic landmark. Crown Bay Marina. O’gara notes with some pride that these, along with Crystal Palace, Agave Terrace and Mango Tango art gallery, are still on AdPro’s client list.
In 1981, O’Gara joined with Robert Austin, Terry Robinson and Margot Bachman to form the Advertising Club of the Virgin Islands. A well-established organization, it now numbers in the hundreds.
After 20 years on Commandant Gade, about 10 years ago O’Gara moved the business to her home high on a hill above Charlotte Amalie, where she turns out copy, concepts and ideas, morphing into print at the flick of a computer key.
In 2003, O’Gara was approached with the idea of editing the 200-page Destination/USVI magazine, which is distributed on direct flights to the territory and to all major hotels.
With typical spirit, she says, "I’d worked with lots of the tourist magazines in the past, so I thought, ‘Im pretty damn sure I could do that. What a nice idea.’"
She’s discovered it’s a lot of work, on which — from all appearances — she thrives. O’Gara employs a diverse group of local writers, ranging in the current issue from nutritionist and outdoor writer Carol Bareuther, attorney Tom Bolt, and entertainer Janet Reiter to wildlife biologist Renata Platenberg. And she works closely with art director Lori Abbots.
This is the busy time of year on the annual publication, with the 2010 edition in the works.
"Right now it’s probably four to five hours a day, and next month it’s more like 12 hours," O’Gara says.
The magazine is published by Ralston Holdings TCI.
"Chris Ralston is a very hands-on guy,” O’Gara says. “Everything gets approved by Ralston in London. We have proofreaders, and everything gets read three times before it goes to London."
So what’s the most fun, the most rewarding thing she does? She pauses for just a moment before ansering.
"It’s hard to say,” O’Gara says. “I like everything I’m doing."
O’Gara can be reached at 776-5702.