Kay Meyers

Kay Meyers

1915 - 2013

A tireless and energetic human rights activist all her adult life, Kenosha native Kathlyn (Kay) Meyers died early Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, at the Seasons Hospice at Chicagos Weiss Memorial Hospital after a three-week struggle with pneumonia and heart failure.

She always thought that with her genes and her active life she should live to be 100. But at 97, two months short of her 98th birthday, she breathed her last.

Kay was born on March 25, 1915, on the Kenosha County Town of Somers farm bought by her grandfather, Bernhard Olk, a German wagon maker who came here in the 1860s from Welschbillig, Germany with his future wife, Amelia Gores, to join the former Bain Wagon Company factory, now the site of the Kenosha Municipal building.

Her mother, Elizabeth Olk Meyers Sprague, was a vital, vocal and vigorous dynamo, tending the house, her children, animals and gardens and while also cleaning the Library Park mansion of the Baldwin Coal Co. family, now the Kenosha Womans Club. She later ran a downtown rooming house where she met a boarder from Michigan who became her second husband, Charles E. Sprague, a talented carpenter, electrician, poet, dancer, and captain and owner of a Great Lakes fishing tug, the Navarre.

Her father, Frank Meyers, later Mayer, was less ambitious. A tall, friendly and amiable man, he was employed as a flagman for the CNW railroad crossing in Crystal Lake, Il., until his retirement to a home on the Olk property.

Kay was preceded in death by her two brothers, the late James A. (Boots) Meyers, a graduate of the Marquette School of Pharmacy and local drug store owner who earned six athletic letters at Kenosha High, a record never equaled, and Bernard E., Sr., a UW-Madison graduate, insurance broker in Royal Oak, Michigan and former writer and foreign correspondent for the Milwaukee Journal.

Kay was also preceded in death by three nephews, Bernard, Jr., died from service as a Navy fighter pilot in WWII, his brother Thomas Congdon Meyers, a Navy gunner also serving in the South Pacific, and Daniel A. an Air Force veteran late of Derby Kansas, and a grandnephew, Thomas Ciochon.

Survivors include a widowed niece, Camilla Ciochon of South Miami, Fla.; and her three surviving children, Francis, Bernadette and Michael; three nephews, John W. Meyers of Sun City, Ariz.; and children, Suzan Magee, Catherine Distone, Michelle Billington, John C. B. Meyers, Michael Meyers and Bridget Lee Bunch; a nephew Charles (Sally) of Atlantic City, NJ; grandnephew Robert Meyers (son of the late Daniel) of Kansas, and Kays favorite nephew and manager James K. (Bette) Meyers of Kenosha and their children Monica (Dennis) Lonergan of Medina, Minnesota, James (Lisa) of Kenosha, Will (CarolLynn) of Glenview, Ill., and Jane of Kenosha, a beloved grandniece who devotedly managed Kays personal care and financial affairs the past three years.

Kay was married twice, to the late Fred Fields and the late Larry Simons. Both unions were short-lived, without children and ended in divorces.

Self-effacing and possessed with great humor, she signed greeting cards As ever, your Socialist, Pacifist, sometimes vegetarian Aunt Kathlyn.

That she was called a secular saint by associates and friends was hardly a misnomer according to longtime friend Bradford Lyttle of Hyde Park at whose home she rented rooms over an extended period. Brad was also one of the main drivers who brought her regularly to the weekly meetings of the College of Complexes at the Lincoln Restaurant where she reveled in the stimulating and cerebral talks and discussions.

She worked with the American Friends Service Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality and many other peace and civil rights groups over the years including the War Resisters League and the US Pacifist Party and Chicago Metro Seniors in Action.

In 1960, she moved from Chicago to the East coast to campaign and demonstrate, returning after several years to aid in the Catholic Worker movement led by Dorothy Day. She was well-loved for her clear headedness and energy.

Kay was always proud to point out that she and her parents were longtime Democratic Socialists and early supporters of leader Eugene V. Debs. She joined the Socialist Party of Wisconsin in 1938, and in 1968 she was nominated to be the Socialist candidate for mayor of Chicago but never made the ballot. The party was unable to obtain the necessary signatures.

A graduate of a Catholic elementary school and public Kenosha High School, she completed two years at the University of Wisconsin Extension and at the Madison campus of the university. She later graduated from the local Vocational school where she studied bookkeeping, typing, shorthand and journalism.

As a prelude to her union activities she studied parliamentary procedures from a labor union organizer and recalls the beginning of Local 72 of the United Auto Workers at the Nash Motors plant in the early 1930s. It began with clandestine meetings held deep in the woods at her familys farm in order to avoid company harassment.

As an active Socialist she participated in many antiwar activities, labor education programs, cooperative funding (her family was involved in the first Consumers Cooperative in Kenosha) the civil rights movement and political educational activities. She was an AFSCME organizer.

As she moved around the nation after leaving home she generally shunned leadership roles but worked in the trenches, joining groups aiming at reforms, teaching social action methods and promoting nonviolent protests in order to enlarge respect and understanding of the individual.

To fund her activities she worked as a steno, bookkeeper, news reporter, statistical typist, legal stenotypist and buyer of rundown buildings in Chicago including a 12-unit. Her aim was to effect societal and economic changes, to keep rents moderate to low while still being able to rehabilitate

the buildings. She rehabbed one inner city building and sold it to a woman with eight children. Other ventures were more ambitious but generally not as successful financially

Her job with the Illinois Commission on Delinquency Prevention provided the funds for her work, but little for herself. She never drove or owned a car. Kay lived frugally, happily buying her clothing from second-hand shops, yet saved for her retirement. Style? Just whatever fit and was cheap. She was the most unselfconscious person imaginable. At public events she could be counted on to appear in a long coat loaded top to bottom with colorful campaign buttons promoting every cause or candidate she believed in. At a grandsons wedding reception here a few years ago a woman admired a particular badge and Kay handed it over and without a blink said, Thats two dollars.

Kay was always cheerful, always giving, never ever complaining, always concerned about others, especially the poor, minorities, the disenfranchised, the elderly and the weak. She was arrested many times during civil rights protests but was often released, she laughs, when police saw she was the only white person in the group.

Kay was accepting of everybody, open, honest, courageous yet possessed always of a dignified humility. She was the height of practicality, and an agnostic. She ignored any organized religions or activities. As a grandnephew sagely observed, "Sure she abandoned God, but it seems He never abandoned her."

She held on during her last struggling hours, just long enough to begin the day this week that honored her kindred spirit, Martin Luther King, Jr.

In keeping with her lifelong generous and selfless spirit, she donated her mortal remains to science.

A memorial service is being planned. Contact Bradford Lyttle, 773-324-0654 for details.

Published online at KenoshaNews.com on Jan. 27, 2013