Downing Jett Kay was 11 years old when the 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote in the United States, was passed by Congress. She was 36 when Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy during WWII. She was 61 when Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon, and she was just about to turn 82 when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Last weekend, surrounded by friends and family at the Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson, Kay celebrated her 112th birthday. The supercentenarian, dressed in yellow and surrounded by generations of friends and family, sat and greeted visitors as about 100 people filed in and out of her party on Nov. 23.
“When one gets to be my age, one has to be grateful for all we have,” Kay said to a reporter in between posing for pictures with visiting friends and family. “Many friends, many people that I didn’t even know were coming. I am so grateful that they are my friends.”
Kay is likely Maryland’s oldest resident, and is one of the oldest living people in the world, according to a list that is maintained by the Gerontology Research Group, a global organization of researchers that tracks supercentenarians, defined as those who have reached the age of 110.
Laura Riley, director of Baltimore County’s Department of Aging, said she was not entirely certain, but is not “personally aware” of anyone older than 112 living in the county.
Each year, Kay has to submit to the federal government a photo of herself holding a newspaper so that she can continue to receive Social Security, according to Jillian Grifo, one of Kay’s great-grandchildren.
Grifo, 26, said “it’s super special” that so many people come together to celebrate Kay’s birthday every year.
“She has made meaningful relationships. I think it shows. People have traveled to be here,” she said.
Anne Joyner, Kay’s 73-year-old daughter, joked that Downing is “as surprised as anybody” that she’s lived so long.
“We celebrate every year. Her ability to connect with people, I think, is really important,” she said.
In 1932, Kay married George A. Kay, who died in 1979, Joyner said. Kay had two children, Joyner and a son, George Kay III, who died in 2009 at age 75. Kay has seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Elinore Davidson, 91, has lived at Pickersgill for eight years. Davidson said she and Kay still eat dinner together regularly, and when they do, Kay always asks about new residents of the retirement community, so that she can stay up to date.
“She’s sharp as a tack,” Davidson said.
Davidson said Kay is fun to be around, and enjoys laughing and singing. When the crowded room sang “Happy Birthday” during the party, Davidson smiled and danced along to the music from her wheelchair.
In a 2016 interview, Kay attributed her health, in part, to dancing. She also said, at the time, that she drank the juice of half a lemon every morning until she turned 100. Someone told her once it was healthy, she said.
But Kay, who said the first person she voted for president was Franklin D. Roosevelt, said it was a conscious decision when she stopped drinking the lemon juice.
“I thought I’d lived long enough, leave my space for somebody else,” Kay said at the time.
And in a 2014 interview with Comedy Central’s Amy Schumer, Kay said she was thankful for every day she was alive.
Kay graduated from Towson University in the class of 1931, according to a list of donors to the school from 2009. She was a kindergarten teacher for about 25 years at the school at Grace and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore, now known as the Wilkes School, Joyner said.
And she’s still active today. She attends a Zumba class at Pickersgill and Sunday church services, said Barry Eisenberg, executive director at the retirement community. Eisenberg said Kay is “by far” the oldest resident at Pickersgill, and quite possibly the oldest the community has ever had, though he hasn’t checked.
Jean Smith, a board member at Pickersgill Retirement Community and a lay leader at Grace United Methodist Church, said Kay was a true “woman of faith” who “just has a good time” day to day.
Dinetta Edmondson, who worked as a housekeeper for Kay when she first moved to the retirement community 25 years ago, said she was “an inspiration.”
“She always asks the new people to dinner," Edmondson said. “That’s just the love she has.”
Earlier in the year, Grifo, Kay’s great-granddaughter, wrote a short oral history of Kay’s life and the lessons she has learned from her. Among those lessons are the importance of remaining civically engaged (Kay was a part of the League of Young Voters at Towson University in 1930, according to an archived yearbook), keeping active and maintaining strong social ties.