Kathy C. Cordes, a former Baltimore Sun artist who later worked at NASA’s Space Telescope Institute on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University, died of congestive heart failure July 29 at Gilchrist Center in Towson. The former longtime Ednor Gardens resident was 71.
“Kath was very smart and could easily have been a doctor or a scientist,” said Ann Feild, a former Sun artist and Space Telescope Institute colleague and a longtime friend.
“She had a strong work ethic, keen research, editorial and problem-solving skills. She was a unique artistic talent who had the ability to do realistic renderings and computer graphics as well as whimsical illustrations,” she said. “Her talents straddled the arena of art and ever-evolving digital technology.
“And what a mind she had. It was wide, deep and expansive. She was also funny as heck and had a fabulous sense of the absurd. And [she was] nobody’s fool.”
Bonnie J. Eisenhamer, former education program manager in the Office of Public Outreach at NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute, worked closely with Ms. Cordes.
“Kathy was one of a kind. She was delightful, pleasant, conscientious and dedicated,” Ms. Eisenhamer said. “She always went the extra mile to make sure things were right and adhered to national education standards. She always wanted to balance the creative while at the same time meeting our obligations. I’ve worked with many artists and not all can do that.”
Kathy Cheryl Cordes, daughter of Kenneth L. Cordes, a DuPont Co. chemical engineer, and Margaret A. Cordes, a special education teacher, was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and raised in its North Graylyn Crest neighborhood.
As a youngster, she attended dance, aerobatics and ballet classes, and was “curious, as always, even then,” said a sister, Holly Cordes Haegele of Pike Creek, Delaware.
After graduating from Brandywine High School, where she had been an exemplary student and a member of the drama club, Ms. Cordes first attended East Carolina University before matriculating to the University of Delaware, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in plant science. She also obtained a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University.
“Early on, however, she spent a few years ‘meandering.’ Drawn to science, and loving gardening, she got a degree in plant science,” according to a 2019 Broadmead Retirement Community profile in Hunt Valley, where she had moved that year. “But Kathy always drew and while working as a lab tech at a molecular genetics lab, she submitted some drawings to an anonymous ad in a Washington newspaper, that led to a series of jobs in news graphics.”
Ms. Cordes worked for a subcontractor for the National Institutes of Health laboratory in Frederick doing DNA sequencing.
“Kath had natural art skills and obviously could make more money doing that than working in the lab,” Ms. Feild said. “She could do the most realistic portraits and beautiful nature drawings, and could also do 1950s-inspired retro illustrations.”
Ms. Cordes launched her career as a news artist when she went to work for United Press International in Washington, and later took a similar position with the The Mercury News, a newspaper in San Jose, California.
She returned to the East Coast and worked briefly for The Washington Times before joining The Sun as a staff artist and illustrator in the mid-1980s.
Twelve years later, Ms. Cordes joined the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Institute, home of the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes.
There Ms. Cordes worked closely with scientists and educators to convey complex astrophysics data to the lay public with graphics for the web and print publications, Ms. Feild said.
One of Ms. Cordes’ jobs was designing online teaching tools for Amazing Space — a website for teachers and children. She considered it a “dream job” because it “blended science, art and education,” according to the Broadmead profile, and another favorite project was working on The Star Witness, a kids’ astronomy newspaper.
“Kathy was a special woman for sure,” Ms. Eisenhamer wrote in an email. “She could take a badly drawn idea I had and bring it to life. She always connected to what we needed even when we didn’t know ourselves. She made work easier and a more enjoyable place to be.
“Kathy had a passion for science and education and she believed in what she did. She was simply the best of the best.”
Stratis Kakadelis, former deputy head of the Office of Public Outreach, was another close colleague.
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“Kathy had exacting standards of her own no matter how low yours were. You couldn’t have anyone better to work with,” Mr. Kakadelis said. “She did so much to bring the excitement of Hubble discoveries to students and educators. She really had a worldwide impact.”
Mr. Kakadelis said they also shared concern caring for older parents.
“I’d get to work early and Kathy was always there,” he said. “She had a sofa chair in her office and I’d plop down and we talked, not about work, but of the difficulties of caring for elderly parents. The humanity in her was amazing.”
A tall and angular woman with thick gray hair and a face that was highlighted by rimless glasses and brightened by a seemingly endless welcoming smile, Ms. Cordes was an avid gardener who had turned her Rexmere Road home in Ednor Gardens into a floral showplace.
Other pastimes included gesture drawing, paper arts, shadow puppets, origami boxes and reading, writing and “watching the sky,” according to the profile. She was also an animal lover and participated in animal rescue. She rescued her beloved dog Ernie from the Baltimore Beltway and countless cats who called her Rexmere Road rowhouse their home.
Plans for a celebration-of-life gathering this fall are incomplete.
In addition to her sister, Ms. Cordes is survived by another sister, Judith Kay McClintock of Arden, Delaware.