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Where Diana's fairy tale never ends

At Sherry Conder's home in Clearwater, thousands of collectibles depict the smiling princess living the dream of little girls everywhere, with no hint of the unhappy truth.

By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published May 12, 2005


CLEARWATER - Sherry Conder married her high school sweetheart almost 32 years ago. They traveled all over the world, then came home and built their own castle, complete with a knight's shining armor in the front hall, where they're busy living pretty much happily ever after.

But she's still haunted by the story of a princess.

Sherry and her husband, Tom, both 49, built their Tudor-style house a couple of years ago. They designed it around the big room in the front, the one filled with tall display cases of carved wood and glass.

On almost every shelf and wall is the image of a world-famous smile, in photos, on china plates, on the lips of elaborately gowned dolls. There are more than 2,000 items in the room, and most of them depict her.

Princess Diana.

The Florida International Museum's current exhibit, "Diana: A Celebration," features the princess' wedding gown and childhood home movies and Elton John's handwritten lyrics to his adaptation of Candle in the Wind.

But it will pack up and leave May 22. Sherry Conder's collection won't be going anywhere. "It's my passion. I would never sell any of it."

* * *

Given Sherry's childhood in Largo, it might be more likely for her to be collecting Orange County Chopper doodads. Her parents started Fletcher's Harley-Davidson 40 years ago, and she and her two sisters grew up amid the gleam and roar of motorcycles. Now the three of them run the business.

But she was fascinated by British royalty even as a kid, Sherry says. Her family came from England, from a little town near Sheffield called Froggat.

"And I just love the stories. It's kind of like a soap opera."

Sherry Fletcher met Tom Conder when they were in junior high school in Largo. They started dating in 11th grade and married in 1973.

Tom joined the Air Force in 1975 and served for 151/2 years. His postings eventually took them to Germany and England, where their son, Michael, now 29, grew up tapping on the walls of castles they visited, looking for secret rooms. "When we built this house," Tom says, "I had to build him a secret room."

England was also where Sherry's princess passion was born.

She began her collection in 1987, with the purchase of a cup, saucer and small plate commemorating Charles and Diana's 1981 wedding. "I think I paid 15 pounds for it."

What kicked her fascination with Diana into high gear, though, was a face-to-face meeting in 1990.

The Conders had seen and photographed the princess from a distance at several events near the base where he was stationed. When they heard Diana would be dedicating a tennis center at nearby Swindon, they took the camera, and something else.

"Sherry knew Diana loved irises," Tom says, "so she got a bouquet."

It worked like a charm. "She made her driver stop right in front of us. Diana walked right up to Sherry and said, "Are those for me?' "

Diana took the flowers from Sherry. "Then she backed up and posed for me, and she shook my hand. I wasn't expecting that," Tom says, flipping through the pages of a photo album to show off a series of closeup shots of the smiling Diana, wearing a bright blue coat that matches the flowers.

Diana, Sherry says, "made you feel like you were the only person there."

* * *

Sherry's explanation for why she is fascinated with Diana is simple.

"She was just a young girl who lived the fairy tale. Or what we thought was the fairy tale."

The images that fill the room are emphatically the fairy tale version. Several large dolls depict Diana in painstakingly detailed copies of her beruffled wedding dress, and others wear tiaras and chic gowns. Porcelain figurines capture those long, sleek legs and that saucy smile.

Some of the commemorative plates and teacups and buttons pair her image with Prince Charles', but most focus on her alone.

There are no framed tabloid pages with slavering headlines about the couple's affairs and divorce, or about Diana's eating disorder or struggles with the pressures of publicity.

Not one item on display is related to Diana's death.

Although the outpouring of grief after her fatal car accident on Aug. 31, 1997, was one of the most massive mournings in the 20th century - 2.5-billion people watched the broadcast of her funeral - Sherry wants no part of it in her collection.

Her husband says when she heard the news, she fainted. "I was devastated," she says. "I still get emotional thinking about it."

Tom bought her a program from the funeral, thinking she would want it. "But I made him send it back."

The Conders moved back to Florida not long after they met Diana in Swindon, but Sherry returns to England with one of her sisters every three years or so to shop for her collection.

"The last time we went to England, we went to Althorp," she says, the Spencer family estate where Diana is buried. "I took a bouquet of blue irises and had a big cry."

* * *

Sherry doesn't know how much she has spent on her Diana collection. She keeps a record of her purchases in a notebook, but she has never added it up. And she hasn't had it appraised, either. "I'm not sure I want to know," she says. Not everything in the room is a Diana artifact. Some display cases are organized around other members of the British royal family: Victoria, George V, George VI, Edward VII, Elizabeth II.

A few pieces belonged to royals, like a set of three square, gold-rimmed plates from the household of George V. "We were promised a chamber pot from the Windsors, but that fell through," Tom says.

There is no trace of Prince Charles' second wife, Camilla.

And there won't be, Sherry says firmly. "I'm not really fond of Charles right now, either."

Another much-married royal offers a hint of the collection's cost. One case holds a set of large, lifelike dolls in beautifully detailed court dress representing Henry VIII and all six of his wives. They cost about $300 each.

One porcelain figure of Diana as a bride cost about $5,000. Many of the items purchased before 1997 shot up in value after Diana's death, Tom says.

Sherry's dream is to own one of Diana's dresses. She attended the famous charity auction of gowns a few months before the princess' death.

"I couldn't believe they just had all the dresses out there where you could just pick them up. So I was right up there, copping a feel."

But she couldn't afford to buy any of the dresses, which sold for prices ranging from $24,000 to $222,000.

Until she scores a dress, Sherry says, perhaps her most treasured piece is a small, signed photo of Diana in a black frame monogrammed with a golden "D" and a crown.

"It was given to a servant who retired," Sherry says. "These frames are used for personal gifts. I can't believe people would sell them."

She saw the photo in a London shop, but the owner didn't take the credit card she was carrying. So she came home without it.

That Christmas, she opened her gift from Tom. It was a vacuum cleaner.

"My family knows you do not buy me household appliances for Christmas. When I opened it up, I said, "I can't believe you bought me a vacuum cleaner.' And he said, "Just open it up. I think you'll like this one.' "

Inside was the photo.

Tom says, "I'm so proud of what she's done with this collection."

Sherry says, "It means a lot to him because it means a lot to me."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 11, 2005, 13:56:02]


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