I didn’t think about it at the time I interviewed her, but Downing Kay lived long enough to have survived the pandemic of 1918-1920 and to have seen the arrival of another. I didn’t put that together until news arrived Friday night of Mrs. Kay’s death at 112, and it would not have occurred to me at all were we not in the throes of the coronavirus now. Mrs. Kay would have been 11 when the global influenza hit Baltimore and killed more than 4,000 city residents, most of them in a single month.
Mrs. Kay was the oldest woman in Maryland, one of the oldest humans on the planet, and an unforgettable character: Charming, funny and blessed with an arresting spark in her lovely, old eyes.
Born in November 1907, she was a child when Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House and she lived to see Donald Trump become president. (“Terrible, terrible,” she said of that development.) The first president she could remember was Woodrow Wilson (not William Howard Taft, the one between TR and Wilson), and she survived the pandemic that arrived as World War I was ending. By the time I met her, in 2016, the Chicago Cubs were in the World Series. That was the premise for my first visit to the retirement community where she lived.
“Downing Kay, a resident of Pickersgill in Towson, was born in 1907. That makes her possibly the only Baltimorean alive when the Cubs last won the Series,” wrote Steve Kaiser, a family friend, suggesting Mrs. Kay as the subject for my Sun column. “She is still active and quite alert and may make a good interview, although I am not sure how much of a fan she is.”
It didn’t matter. Mrs. Kay was a great interview. Her mind was still sharp the first time I met her, when she was on the cusp of 109 and super-centenarian status. In my second interview, when she was approaching her 111th birthday, we sang Eddie Cantors songs together and Mrs. Kay told me more about her long life. May she rest in peace.
And here is a treat: My podcast interview with Mrs. Kay at Pickersgill in 2018.