by LEN LEAR
Anita T. Conner, 55, a Glenside native who runs highly successful accounting offices in Germantown and Elkins Park, has not yet turned water into wine, but she has certainly turned personal tragedy into shining success in both her personal and business lives.
“I believe a setback is a setup for a comeback,” said the ebullient, deeply religious certified public accountant with an omnipresent smile. “Everyone has negative things happen in life, but it’s how you handle those negatives that will determine what kind of life you will have.
“For example, when I became pregnant while I was still in (Abington) high school, that certainly seemed like a setback. I was basically a child with a child. I often took her to school with me. However, today my daughter (Kerri), who is 37, is also a CPA and graduate of Howard University, and we have a great mother/daughter partnership in our business. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”
When Anita became pregnant, she thought her situation would preclude her getting a college education. However, she sat down with her parents, George and Dorothy Thorne, and older brother Earl, all of whom insisted she defer marriage and finish her education. As a result, she did finish high school, attended Northeastern University in Boston for six months and then transferred to Drexel University (“I was homesick”), where she graduated with honors. She later went on to earn a master’s degree in taxation from Philadelphia University, also with honors. (During her years at Drexel, Anita’s father died at 52 of cancer, causing more devastating emotional trauma.)
While still in college in 1977, Anita became an intern at the prestigious Price Waterhouse accounting firm in Philadelphia. She was put right into the tax department, which was highly unusual for an intern. Anita was the only African-American out of 25 employees in the department, and there were only three other women. In 1979 she may have been the only black female tax accountant in the city.
Conner was used to the slings and arrows of racism. Only about one percent of the students at both Abington High School and Drexel University were black when she attended them. She insists, however, that the most egregious instances of racism she encountered were at the accounting firm, where she “got very little training and mentoring and then got bad evaluations. [A supervisor’s investigation later determined the negative evaluations to be unfounded.] The racism I encountered made me a stronger person, however.”
Conner later worked for Penn Mutual Insurance Company but left in 1988 to open her own practice in her Elkins Park home. Two years later she opened an office for her firm, Anita T. Conner & Associates, a full-service CPA company, in Jenkintown, and moved again in 1994 to her current location in Elkins Park at 8000 Old York Rd. She later opened a second office at 6319 Germantown Ave. in Germantown.
However, the most dangerous roadblock of her life was placed in Anita’s path in 1998 when she was 41. She discovered a hard lump in her breast, had a mammogram taken and eventually was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fourteen of 20 lymph nodes examined in a laboratory were found to be malignant, and Anita underwent a radical mastectomy and total hysterectomy at the same time.
Anita was placed on a regimen of aggressive chemotherapy that was 10 times as great as the standard dosage. She also underwent a stem cell transplant and extensive radiation treatment. She lost every hair on her body and face.
“I had a wig made that cost a lot of money,” she said, “but I never wore it. It felt uncomfortable and unnatural, so I wore scarves. I rarely missed a day of work, though. I needed it for therapy, except for the three weeks when I was placed in isolation.
“That was done because the chemotherapy killed my immune system, and the doctors could not take a chance on my getting an infection. I couldn’t even have flowers or fruit. All the food had to be specially prepared. When family members visited, they had to wear special clothing, and they had to wash their hands vigorously.”
The stem cell transplant was done to stimulate new cell growth and rebuild Conner’s immune system. She was the 100th patient at Abington Hospital to undergo the procedure. After about a year of extensive treatment, the cancer was all gone from Conner’s body, and she was on her way to recovery. She has now been cancer-free for 14 years.
A local production company, Front Porch Media, Inc., was so impressed with Anita’s story that they produced a one-hour documentary entitled “The Anita T. Story: Through God’s Grace, I’ve Overcome.” It was released seven years ago and is available at some local religious book stores and church libraries. Anita is a member of Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown. (For more information about the documentary DVD, call 215-782-8833 or visit www.theanitaconnerstory.com.)
In addition, 12 years ago Anita founded the nonprofit George E. Thorne Development Center (GETDC) in honor of her father. The center, currently based in Germantown, offers financial literacy programs for young people, college tours and college preparatory workshops, an entrepreneurial program and criminal justice forums for youth. Hundreds of young people take part in the programs yearly. “Praise Is The Cure,” a breast cancer awareness program, is also a project of GETDC.
“I named it for my father,” explained Anita, “because he was my mentor. He always preached that we could control our own destiny if we get a good education and own our own businesses. He was an engineer, and he owned his own business, the G & E Machine, Tool and Design Company.”
After her graduation from Drexel, Anita married the father of her daughter, John Conner, a former federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who is now an attorney. The couple also has a son, John Jr., 31, who is the Executive Director of GETDC.
The latest project of GETDC is the 7th Annual Praise Is The Cure® Week of Hope, Health, and Healing, which began Sept. 26 and ends Oct. 6, to recognize the plight of African-American breast cancer patients, survivors and their families and to spread awareness about the disease in hopes that it will help save lives. According to the American Cancer Society, African-American women have the lowest five-year breast cancer survival rate, 77.5 percent, of the six racial/ethnic groups studied.
The week of activities will conclude on Saturday, Oct. 6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, 6401 Ogontz Ave. in West Oak Lane, with health fair screenings, workshops, etc. More information at 215-635-1025 or www.praiseisthecure.org.
For her efforts in the nonprofit arena, Anita has received 60 awards. The most recent were the “Best of Philadelphia Tax Preparation Service” for the last four years in a row by a commercial association and the 2011 “Top Wealth Manager in Philadelphia” award from Philadelphia magazine.
“I was spared for a reason,” Conner said of her cancer experience. “I believe it was to help other people, to inspire people and to let them know they can live their dreams. A lot of things I had always wanted to do I was motivated to start doing after I survived cancer.” For more information, call 215-849-0733 or visit www.atconnercpa.com.