From The Archives: Kay

Kathryn “Kay” Louise Ellis Lutz was born this day 100 years ago in Evansville, IN, the second and final child of Oscar and Mabel Ellis. Her father worked for a veneer company; her mother stayed at home, tending to Kathryn and her older brother Errett, eight years her senior. Oscar’s job involved occasional travel, including to New York City. He loved to sing, and regularly brought home sheet music, much of which we still have in a box in our coat closet. 

In 1920s Evansville, one could begin school in January, and that’s what Kathryn did just before she turned six. Soon after the Great Depression hit, her family moved east, back to her parents’ hometown of New Albany, IN, right across the river from Louisville. Faced with a choice of moving up or back a half-grade, Kay and/or her parents chose the aggressive path, making her likely the youngest member of the New Albany High School Class of 1937. It was in high school that she became Kay—a number of her friends all took on nicknames, and hers was one of the few that stuck over the years. Her senior year was eventful enough: she was elected class Secretary; she became an aunt in September; and the Great ’37 Flood of the Ohio River arrived in January.

After graduating, Kay moved to Muncie, IN, to attend Ball State Teachers College, then an institution of a little over one thousand students, well over 60% of which were female. To save on expenses, her parents soon moved to Muncie as well (her father’s job didn’t require him to live in any particular spot). She took coursework that would allow her to teach business and English.

Tragedy struck during her junior year; back home, Errett died of an infection, leaving behind his wife Helen and three-year-old son Keith. Helen would remarry within a few years and have another son, David. 

The Ellises returned to New Albany upon Kay’s graduation in 1941, and she taught junior high English for one year. The following year, a swelling war effort led to the family moving to Hampton, SC, about eighty miles inland from Charleston; Kay worked in the furniture company’s office, alongside her father. She joined the USO and would occasionally take bus rides to visit the soldiers guarding a nearby German POW camp, even dating one for a while.

Right before Christmas 1945, Oscar died suddenly. Mabel and Kay would move once again to New Albany before long, Mabel going back to office work, as she had prior to marriage, and Kay returning to teaching, this time business, typing, and shorthand at the high school (she also sponsored the cheerleaders). Together, they bought a small house on Meadow Lane.

And so it went for a decade or more, until Austin Lutz waltzed (or, more accurately, do-si-doed) into Kay’s life. Square dancing dates led to love led to marriage two days after Christmas, 1958. Kay and Austin bought the house next door to Kay’s mother; she “retired” from education at the end of the school year. Mabel stayed next door until her death in 1969.

Since she’d married relatively late in life, motherhood hadn’t really been a part of Kay’s plan. Yet she found herself expecting at the age of 41, eventually discovering she was eating for three. She was an attentive, actively-involved mother to Martha and Ruth, serving in leadership roles for Girl Scouts and church youth group.

Martha, Kay, Ruth

Meanwhile, she maintained wide and varying circles of friends and relatives, close and distant. She stayed close with several high school classmates; she and Austin remained very involved in their square dancing group; Kay had joined one of the local chapters of the social sorority Beta Sigma Phi before marrying, and kept her membership throughout the decades; she played a central role in the New Albany High School Alumni Association, which got its start from a gift memorizing one of her classmates; she was a beloved teacher who ran into former students regularly when out and about (and worked side-by-side with many on their children’s activities, as a number of them had children the same age as hers).

Kay was a very spry 75 when I met her, soon after Martha and I began dating. She was always gracious, always kind, even while beating me at a card game called hand-and-foot (a melding game played with multiple decks of cards, not unlike canasta in some respects—she and Austin would play it many evenings). Her favorite saying after drawing just the right card was “Hot pups!”

Kay had an infectious smile and was very good at making everyone feel welcome, even special. She became ‘Grandmama’ in 2000, and excelled in that role—Ben was incredibly fond of her. 

Austin died of pancreatic cancer in 2002. It was a difficult adjustment, but she’d had experience managing things prior to marriage. While she slowed down a little over the years, Kay maintained remarkably good health and was active, particularly at Central Christian Church, until her last few months, just as her husband had been. Cancer, discovered around Memorial Day weekend of 2011, led to surgery, which in turn led to a nursing home; from then until late October, Martha and Ruth took turns going to New Albany, a week at a time. I know it’s not how she wanted things to go.

We spent time over the next year-plus sorting through the house on Meadow Lane—Kay had never gotten around to downsizing.  It took a while figuring out what to keep, what to give away, and what to discard (the fate of the fifty-year-old upright freezer in the basement is a story unto itself). About the time it was ready for sale, the young family next door—living in the house that Kay and her mother had purchased so many years earlier—indicated interest. They had been friendly and attentive to Kay in her final years, so we hoped things would work out. They did, and it all came together when the woman’s mother agreed to buy their house to live next door. It was immensely satisfying to see history repeating itself. I know Kay would have given her blessing.

(You can find a similar article I wrote about Austin two-and-a-half years ago here.)

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