Remembering a teacher who loved to give guided tours of museums

Former popular Roland Park Country School teacher was known for her informative tours and blithe spirit

May 28, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

You could always tell when Kay Cavanaugh was around, whether you could see her or not.

It was that infectious and penetrating laugh of hers that came so easily, erupted often and brightened classrooms, living rooms, social gatherings and even the sacred galleries of some of the world's most fabled art museums.

Kay — who never took herself too seriously and made legions of friends — remained a free spirit and unpretentious individual her entire 91 years.

I was saddened to learn in late March that she had died in February, from congestive heart failure in Palo Alto, Calif., where she had lived for the last seven years to be near her two children, Connie Cavanaugh and Neal Cavanaugh, and her grandson, Max Rausch.

She and her husband, Bob, who had been chief executive officer and owner of Monumental Security Storage Inc., were one of my favorite couples in Baltimore.

They were inseparable and a perfect complement to one another during their 63-year marriage.

Kay loved art and Bob enjoyed playing swing-era and big-band music with several local groups.

"But they did share an interest in both," said her daughter.

They enjoyed entertaining and filling their wonderful stone house on West Northern Parkway with interesting people, good food and plenty of cheer.

"I've never seen anyone shine so much as my mother around her friends. That was what made her motor run," her son said. "That and Roland Park Country School."

Bob, a native of Scranton, Pa., met Kay in the early 1940s in Atlantic City, where she had gone for a family vacation.

What Kay didn't know was that she really didn't have to go all the way to Atlantic City to meet Bob, who had been living since 1940 in Baltimore and working at the old Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River.

A Baltimore native, Kay, who was formerly Katherine Hamilton, was raised in the 600 block of W. University Parkway, and graduated from Roland Park Country School in 1937. She earned a degree in art history in 1941 from Bryn Mawr and early on nursed an ambition of becoming an archaeologist.

"She had a love of camel rides," her son recalled.

In the early 1940s, she became a faculty assistant at the old Roland Park Country School, whose campus in those days was on West 40th Street, which today is the site of Roland Park Place, a retirement community.

Then along came a romance with Bob that was set against the backdrop of World War II.

Bob had joined the Army Air Forces and was being trained as a B-24 Liberator tail gunner and navigator in Colorado Springs, Colo., when they married in 1942.

They then lived in Atlantic City until 1943, when Bob went overseas where he served with a heavy bombardment group based in North Africa and later Italy.

Kay figured if Bob was overseas in the thick of battle, she'd join the war effort and do what she could to help bring him safely home.

She went to work in 1943 inspecting radios at Bendix Radio on East Joppa Road in Towson. She continued doing that work until the war ended.

After the war, she and Bob moved to Stoneleigh, started a family, and then moved to Roland Park.

"It wasn't long before RPCS again became an important focus in her life," her son said, when she began teaching history and art history — "her passion" — in 1956.

"During her time at RPCS, her energy and enthusiasms brought several other enterprises to life. She began organizing trips to Europe and beyond, during which she served as guide, organizer, concierge and art historian," her son said.

Students and later adults who were enrolled in the school's Kaleidoscope adult education program clamored for a space on Kay's trips.

She never tired of them and brought her own enthusiasm and insightful commentary to them — not stuffy or overly reverential — just like the way she was in life.

"I loved Kay, who had a great love for Roland Park," Jean Waller Brune, who graduated from the school in 1960 and has been its headmistress since 1992, said the other day.

"She was a gracious lady who throughout her life was dedicated to the school and its students. Another aspect to Kay was that she was a lifetime learner," Brune said.

Kay's assistant on these trips was Bob, who often sat on benches in museums directing the lost, stragglers and other members of the tour group to the room where Kay was speaking.

Sandy Stellmann, a 1961 Roland Park alum and classics major in college, was a frequent member of Kay's tour groups.

"She took wonderful trips to Europe, and when I was at Vassar, inspired me to take history of art courses. I traveled with Kay to Italy, France, Egypt and Spain," Stellmann recalled.

"She'd get talking and it was wonderful. She was the most well-rounded and unflappable woman I've ever known," she said. "Her trademark line when we were in museums was, 'Learn to look.' She opened the world to me on those trips."

Stellmann said that Kay was "always ready to try new things" and wasn't a captive of simply the classics and Old Masters.

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