Donna Handel’s career path has never followed a straight line. A consignment specialist, one-time Wheel of Fortune finalist and screenwriter, Handel has also worked as a produce vendor, a food server, a hairstylist, a teacher, a marketing manager, a drug and alcohol intervention specialist, a psychotherapist, a personal and professional life coach, a national trainer and an inventor.
“That’s the short list,” says the owner of Petunia’s, a women’s consignment clothing boutique in Ardmore’s Suburban Square. “Suffice it to say, I’ve come to realize that some of us are meant to be specialists, while others, like me, are meant to be generalists.”
In Handel’s words, she’s as varied and eclectic as “all-natural peanut butter—soft, smooth, nourishing and easily blended across a multitude of surfaces, yet having a preference for the substantive qualities of multigrain whole wheat versus Wonder Bread.”
“I’m a delightful blend of warm, down to earth, spontaneous and artistic with a great sense of style,” she adds. “I’m joyful, feminine, balanced, fun, adventurous, athletic and earthy.”
And remarkably self-aware, it seems.
A native of Elkins Park, Handel spends much of her free time outdoors, touring around in a vintage 1966 Airstream Caravel. She tows her “writing haven and home away from home” with an off-white 1962 Ford Falcon station wagon she calls Wanda. While she enjoys the simplicity of nature, Handel is also a high-energy dynamo who may be “the world’s most extroverted loner.”
Certainly, there have been peak moments in Handel’s wild ride. She solved the final bonus-round puzzle on Wheel of Fortune’s Philadelphia Week in 1999. “Pretty awesome,” she admits. “I still can’t watch the show without my heart racing.”
With oldest brother David, she invented the world’s first adjustable-height high-heel shoe, which was featured among Time’s Top 40 inventions of 2007. Scheduled to go on Oprah to promote the shoe, Handel was bumped by the iPhone’s debut. “Somehow, that still feels like a victory to me,” she says.
A storyteller by nature, Handel has written short stories, an instructional manual to help kids build self-esteem, a fairytale titled The Scared Shoe That Became a Happy Soul and a few feature-length screenplays. The script that drives her is Antenna Man, based on the memoir of Daniel Aaron, one of the founders of Comcast and the father of childhood friends. Thus far, the script has had one professional read. It was a pass, so she’s in heavy rewrite mode right now.
In 2001, a year before he was inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame, Aaron published his memoir, Take the Measure of the Man. A journalist, business executive, father of five, tap dancer and inventor, Aaron helped persuade former suspender manufacturer Ralph J. Roberts to buy a cable company in Tupelo, Mississippi. With Robert’s wherewithal and financing, Comcast was born.
Back in Germany, Aaron’s father was a lawyer, a politician and a Jew who was briefly imprisoned by the Nazis in 1937. A year later, when Daniel was 12, his family escaped Germany and emigrated to Queens, New York. Their limited finances enabled Daniel and his younger brother, Frank, to qualify for YMCA summer camp scholarships in Staten Island.
One night in the summer of 1939, Daniel was awoken by a phone call. He was told that his mother, stressed and in failing health, took her own life. He and Frank returned home for her funeral, then went back to camp. Three weeks later, their father did the same, leaving the boys to the foster care system.
Undeterred by his circumstances, Aaron attended Temple University and later graduated from Penn’s Wharton School, becoming a financial writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin. He was covering a story on Jerrold Electronics when his fascination with the burgeoning cable industry blossomed. The company was owned by Milton Jerrold Shapp, a two-time Pennsylvania governor. Soon, Aaron was working for Shapp. Later, he brokered the sale of the tiny Mississippi cable operation when he and Warren “Pete” Musser found their investor—Roberts, whose one condition was that Aaron ran the business.
And run it he did. By 1977, Aaron was elected chairman of the National Cable Television Association, essentially leaving Comcast to become an industry spokesman and a successful lobbyist for the Federal Communications Commission, paving the way for the Communications Act of 1984, which streamlined oversight and regulation of the industry.
In 1980, Aaron was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s disease. Just in his early 50s, he turned his philanthropic impulses toward its diagnosis, treatment and a cure, founding the Dan Aaron Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and the Greater Philadelphia Parkinson’s Council. Aaron died in 2003 at age 77.
As for Handel, she wants to see Aaron’s story “brought to fruition, made into a feature-length film and presented to the world.” She’s also working on a TV dramedy pilot set in a Main Line consignment shop. Think Cheers with a cash register instead of a bar. “Lots of women feels like Petunia’s is home to them,” says Handel. “It’s been a platform to share so many life issues—and, for me, the only thing I’ve ever done longer is breathe.”
Penn Valley’s Lynn Cohen has been drawn to Handel since they first met. Cohen’s son even bought a house Handel was flipping in South Ardmore. “She’s a unique person,” says Cohen. “She always seems to have another idea, and her current occupation was never enough.”
Cohen also shops and consigns at Petunia’s. “Those who frequent such places are the same people who go into other consignment shops,” she says. “We all know each other. It’s a community.”
Handel’s primary aim with Consignment is correcting fashion faux pas, spearheading self-expression and deciphering the ways we overtly and covertly consign ourselves. “Why be normal?” she poses. “That’s what I adhere to. I believe in integrity, so the universe keeps supporting me.”
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