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Downing Kay, likely Maryland’s oldest resident, dies at 112

Downing Kay, pictured in 2016 in her home at Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson, just before she turned 109.
Downing Kay, pictured in 2016 in her home at Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson, just before she turned 109. (Algerina Perna)

She remembered World War I. During the Great Depression, she learned to make a can of tuna last a week. When World War II broke out, she tended to her victory garden.

But in the last few months of her life, as the coronavirus pandemic raged around her, Downing Jett Kay spent most of her days confined to her bed at Towson’s Pickersgill Retirement Community.

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Mrs. Kay, believed to be the oldest living Maryland resident, died Friday afternoon after a months-long illness. She was 112.

Supercentenarians, or people older than 110, are rare; scientists think just dozens remain in the U.S. They include 114-year-old Hester Ford of South Carolina, believed to be the oldest person alive in the country.

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Mrs. Kay attributed her longevity to her habit of drinking the juice of half a lemon each morning, mixed with hot water. She stopped in 2007, she told The Baltimore Sun, because: “I lived to be 100, and I thought that was long enough.”

Born Nov. 23, 1907, to Robert Jett and Lilian Downing Jett, Mrs. Kay grew up in a West Baltimore rowhouse near the city’s Walbrook neighborhood. Her father was a clothier; his Jett Bros. & Co. Tailors at 23 W. Fayette St. advertised $20 suits “fit for a king" in The Sun in 1912.

The family eventually moved to a house on Carlisle Avenue; Mrs. Kay relished the closeness to Hanlon Park, adjacent to Lake Ashburton.

The family were strict Methodists, worshiping at Starr Methodist Church on Garrison Boulevard. Mrs. Kay later recounted to Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks an incident in which a dinner guest explained he was in town to bet on the races at Pimlico. There were gasps at the table.

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For fun, she danced. “We would finish dinner and my brother Samuel would go to the Victrola — the Victrola! Good Lord, I haven’t used that word in such a long time!” she told Mr. Rodricks in 2016. “Sam would get up and turn on the Victrola and say, ‘Downing, want to dance?’ And we’d dance from the dining room to the living room to the dining room.”

Nearly 100 years later, she could still sing the words to “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?),” a popular tune after the end of the First World War.

Mrs. Kay graduated from Forest Park High School in 1926; her graduation photo reveals a short bob of finger waves. She went on to study education at the Towson Normal School, now Towson University.

In an interview with Mr. Rodricks, she described the happiest day of her life as her 1932 wedding day to George Kay, a professor at the University of Baltimore. Following a reception at her parents’ home, the couple set forth on a honeymoon by car throughout the South.

They had two children, Anne Kay Joyner and George Kay III.

A gifted storyteller, Mrs. Kay often recounted her life during the 1930s and 1940s: how she economized during the Great Depression, stretching a can of tuna to last a week, or feeding four people with a tomato. During the second World War, she cultivated a victory garden while her husband ensured that neighbors had their blinds shut in case of air raids. For a time, she worked as pollster for the Gallup company, going door to door to glean people’s opinions about the conflict.

After the war’s end, Mrs. Kay took a position as a kindergarten teacher at Mt. Vernon’s Grace and St. Peter’s School, a job she held for 20 years. (Now known as the Wilkes School at Grace and St. Peter’s, the institution announced Friday that it would close its doors this June, citing declining enrollment coupled with the coronavirus pandemic.)

At Pickersgill, she played Scrabble weekly, even after losing her eyesight to macular degeneration. A friend read her the tiles; Mrs. Kay had memorized the value of each letter. “Scrabble. That’s my passion,” she told Mr. Rodricks. She also enjoyed frequent phone calls with family and friends.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Kay seldom exited her front door without lipstick, breath mints and Tresor perfume. Her favorite color was yellow; on her 112th birthday, family members draped her wheelchair in canary-colored tulle.

A longtime member of Grace Methodist Church, Mrs. Kay had planned her own funeral there, “down to who she wanted to sing and who would say what and how the program would be designed,” said her daughter. Services have been postponed because of the coronavirus.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Kay is survived by seven grandchildren as well as great-grandchildren. Her son preceded her in death.

The Gerontology Research Group tracks “the world’s oldest humans” and was in the process of verifying Mrs. Kay’s age when she died. “For all intents and purposes, the case is validated,” said Robert Douglas Young, director of the group’s supercentenarian research and database division. “I’m certain that her age is correct."

Mr. Young thinks Mrs. Kay, who died at 112 years and 174 days, is the oldest lifelong Maryland resident in the state’s history. Nellie Stanford, born in Maryland, died in Pennsylvania in 1989 at age 112 and 192 days. Helen Wheat was born in Pennsylvania and died in Maryland in 2016 at age 113.

Informed of Mrs. Kay’s passing, Mr. Young remarked: “I had really hoped she would make it to 113.”

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