Friday, June 30, 2017

Community mourns the passing of a “Windham Institution” – Kay Soldier dies at 79 by Walter Lunt

Kathleen Evelyn Kelley Whirlwind-Soldier, a prominent and highly-respected resident of Windham, passed away peacefully Monday, June 26, following a brief illness. She was 79.

Soldier was widely known as a local historian and a news reporter, editor and columnist for several weekly newspapers; including the Courier Free Press and the Suburban and Lakes Region newspapers.

Born in Windham, Kay was the oldest of six children and grew up on Webb Road and Chute Road during the unique period between the greatest generation and the baby boomers. Through her weekly columns, she shared with faithful readers, the many childhood experiences of the days before television/technology. Kay often reflected on the neighborhood and family life in a time of gravel roads, child-oriented play, frugality, limited transportation and the growing pains of the town she loved. 

Of the early times, Kay’s sister Ellen Kelley remembers how Kathleen always wanted to be the boss.
“When my mother would let her, she would arrange the living room into a one-room schoolhouse. We (the brothers and sisters) were the students. Kathleen would always be the teacher.” highly skilled researcher and board member of the Windham Historical Society, Kay was for decades, the town historian. Former society President Linda Griffin said Kay would personally answer the many queries presented to the society. Some she could answer from personal knowledge, others might require days of tenacious research and telephone calls.

“Kay would run our office, curate and file the artifacts, put out our newsletter, handle all the publicity and create WHS fliers. It now takes three of us to do what she did.”

One personal quality mentioned by many who knew her, was her unusual sense of humor. She was known for the quick and thoughtful comeback, usually tinged with sarcasm. If, for example, a conversation turned silly, or the questions too philosophically “far out,” she would listen, pause and say, “The more we talk about that, the less interested I get.”
Kay graduated valedictorian of the Windham High School class of 1955. The “Windonian” Yearbook, of which she was editor, published a senior class poll. Kay was voted most conspicuous girl, most witty and humorous, most intelligent and most talkative. Apparently because no one could imagine such an occurrence, one classmate mused, “What if Kathleen Kelley was at a loss for words?” As her foremost ambition, Kay wrote, “To meet (movie star) Tony Curtis.”

Kay left Windham soon after high school. “Unless you get married or go into nursing or teaching, what else was there to do?” she once said. She performed secretarial work at Canal Bank in Portland and later for a law firm in New York. The big cities afforded Kay opportunities to visit science and fine arts museums and to pursue courses in her many and varied interests: anthropology, archaeology, literature, poetry and painting. Although she avoided prominent displays of her work, family members said Kay was accomplished in sketch artistry. Several examples of her early work can be seen in the 1955 high school yearbook.

“I loved New York. Especially Greenwich Village and the jazz music,” she once said. She loved it so much that, in addition to her full-time day job, she accepted a $1.25 per hour, evening job as a hostess at The Jazz Workshop.

It was during her time in New York that she met and married George Whirlwind-Soldier. The two moved to Rosebud (Sioux) Reservation in South Dakota where they lived with George’s extended family. “I thought Maine winters were cold,” Kay would later observe, “but they’re nothing like the winter’s out there.”

Following a divorce in the late 1960s, Kay moved, with her adopted son David, back to Windham, where she found employment at the L.C. Andrew lumber yard in South Windham. She was also hired by the town to transcribe the minutes of the town council and planning board meetings, a position she called “the official town scribe.”

By the 1980s, Kay’s writing and office talents had attracted the attention of publishers. Windham had grown to a point where it could support local weekly newspapers. She became the chief reporter and editor of the Courier Free Press and later The Suburban News. Publisher Bill Diamond remembers Kay as the creator of the local paper that was “. . . totally devoted to Windham and all of its past and current treasures. It can be said that Kay Soldier was the true core of our town, someone who loved Windham more than her own self.”

One of Kay’s early hires was Michelle Libby, later the editor of The Windham Eagle. “I learned some wonderful lessons from Kay that have stuck by me to this day,” says Libby, “this is where my philosophy of positive news comes from. Write positive stories so when something bad happens the people already trust you and are more willing to help with the bad news coverage.”

Longtime Windham resident Jerry Black said the town has lost a great resource and historian. “She was always there to help the veteran’s center.”

Echoing the sentiment, resident and historical society member Bruce Elder commented, “She was our treasure – the town was so lucky to have her. Irreplaceable!”

She would often include her email address and phone number in the newspaper columns she wrote. And that kept her busy. Callers, particularly seniors, would ask for help wading through the red tape associated with Medicare or want to know where to get assistance with tax issues. No call for help went unanswered, even it meant hours of research. great interest and concern to Kay were the twin issues of prejudice and the underprivileged. On the topic of Windham’s aborigine population and the subsequent intrusion by white settlers, Kay would ask, “So, in this case, who do you think were the savages?”- referring to the term used by early Windham historians to describe the native tribes. When discussion arose regarding support for the poor, Kay would recount the story of the widow Hannah Starbird who, in the 1790s, appeared in Windham with no means of support. Ultimately, Starbird was “struck off” to the lowest bidder who would agree to keep her in “victuals and clothes” until her place of origin could be determined. Kay wanted to know, “Was this the proper care for Starbird? How should we treat the downtrodden?”
Soldier would rarely follow her questions with a debate. She would change the subject or walk away, preferring folks just think about her questions.

Reaction to Kay Soldier’s death is universal sadness. Words of description, used to reference her included: dynamic, treasured, irreplaceable, gifted, revered and an institution.

But perhaps Diamond summed it up best, “Kay Soldier was a special gift to Windham. She can never be replaced – only remembered and praised as we send her our most sincere “thank you.”  

However, regarding the comments about her, Soldier, who was not one to appreciate compliments or praise, would probably say something like, “The more you talk, the less interested I get.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your Comments Help Improve Your Community.