by Diana Kohn
photos by Julie Wiatt
A few happy tears were shed when Kay Daniels-Cohen was announced as one of the Azalea Award winners in April. Since last summer she has battled breast cancer even as she kept to an unflagging schedule of volunteerism–doing the nitty-gritty to reopen the Piney Branch pool, leading the campaign to start a new winter basketball league, resurrecting the SS Carroll Neighborhood Association, decorating McGinty’s for an inaugural ball and pitching in whenever anyone asked.
The Azalea ceremony got more emotional when her baby brother, Buddy, surprised her with a handmade award–a sparkplug mounted in a box frame–for being, as he said, “the spark that makes everyone want to go out and do something for others.”
Kay and Buddy grew up in a special Takoma Park family, the children of Opal Daniels–the first woman to have a local park named in her honor–and her husband Henry C. Daniels.
They arrived with their four-year-old daughter Kay in 1946 and took up residence at 19 Sherman.
Kay picks up the story:
While my father worked for the Department of Agriculture, my mom first taught at Georgetown Prep but it wasn’t her style. Then she taught at an integrated nursery school in DC. I was probably the only white child there. We learned later that she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for working in that school.
Opal and Henry Daniels raised their two children at 19 Sherman Avenue. Buddy and Kay continue to live in the family house.
Mom was born in a one-stoplight town in Texas but graduated from Baylor University in 1930 when she was 18 years old. For six years she was a school teacher and coached the women’s champion state basketball team a couple years running, at a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of an oil field.
My dad met her in Austin at the University of Texas when she came for her master’s degree; he was already there working on his. In the 1930s, especially in Austin, it was very socialist. They went to school with Howard Fast who was blacklisted in Hollywood years later.
They got married in 1939 and my dad ran a migrant labor camp in Robstown, Texas. That’s where they lived. The migrant labor camps were self-supporting towns and the housing was clean and sanitary.
By 1942 he was responsible for logistics and moving the migratory workers around the country for the Department of Agriculture Farm Security because our young men were going off to war, and there was no one else to pick the crops. After the war they sent him to DC, and we followed.
Mom stopped teaching when I started kindergarten at Takoma Park Elementary, the old school- the one they tore down. I was there for six grades.
Opal Daniels Park honors the legacy of Opal Daniels. It can be entered from either Carroll Ave (between Lincoln and Sherman) or from Hancock Avenue.
Her work became volunteer work. She spent lots of time at school, working in the cafeteria once or twice a week. We always had a spring festival with pony rides, and PTA magazine drives and both my mom and dad were involved.
In the first grade, I wanted to be a Brownie, and the only way I could get into Girl Scouts is if she agreed to be a intermediate Girl Scout leader, so that’s what she did. I became a Brownie and worked my way up and she took her girls through junior high to high school. Bud was born in the middle of that while I was in fourth grade. She stayed with it, and was a Girl Scout leader for at least forty years.
I was in 8th grade in Takoma Park Junior High when the school was integrated. Buddy was just starting kindergarten at Takoma Park Elementary. It was a very smooth, no big deal. we all just started school in September.
When Buddy became a Cub Scout, mom was Den Mother. The troop was integrated because the school was. But when it was time to move up, they wouldn’t let his Cub Scout troop into the all-white Boy Scout troop. So Buddy didn’t continue with Boy Scouts.
Buddy Daniels and his sister Kay Daniels-Cohen at the 2009 Azalea Awards.
Of course, in Texas discrimination wasn’t against black people, it was against Mexicans, Hispanic people. Because mom and dad had grown up poor and seen people taken advantage or abused, both of them would defend what they felt were people’s rights.
I remember when I was in the sixth grade, one of the Girl Scouts in our troop was Japanese. We’d been on a camping trip and the parents and girls were sitting down in a restaurant in a little group. And they wouldn’t serve her because she was Japanese. My dad got up and we all walked out. He was crystal clear about why he was walking out–it wasn’t a quiet walk-out.
I got into everything because of the Girl Scouts. There isn’t anything that I can’t trace back to Scouts. We went to Camp Letts every summer and Easter vacations. Girls didn’t do sports. I did camping, a lot of boys stuff, because of Girl Scouts. Mother always made sure we took lessons in the swimming pool, either in DC or over at Columbia Union College.
When I decided I needed a job the summer before college, I started calling swimming pools and ended up as a lifeguard. That’s how I funded my college. I lived at home and earned enough money in summer time to pay tuition and books.
In college, I ran for legislator as a commuter and an independent. In those days you had to be in a fraternity or a sorority. I ran as a towney and got more votes than anybody in history and eventually ended up as secretary of the student government association.
Opal Daniels Girl Scout Troop in 1
I majored in physical education –Buddy and I both got involved in physical education –because of my mother.
My dad had helped form the Mine Workers Health and Welfare Retirement Fund. At first he coordinated taking disabled miners (mostly paraplegics) by train out to Kaiser in California for treatment.
Then they started their own medical care program and built their own clinics and 10 hospitals. It was socialized medicine.
When the young whippersnappers in the union dissolved the medical section in 1975, a huge body of knowledge and experience was blown away.
Mom never drove; she had a terrible automobile accident in a rainstorm in Texas when she was seven months pregnant with me and from that mment on she never drove again. Dad drove her everywhere. I always said he was the wind beneath her wings. Two brilliant minds – I remember them fighting over the crossword puzzles every Sunday: who go it first, who did it in ink, or in pencil.
In the mid-1950’s Belle Ziegler moved onto Sherman Ave. My mom got involved with the city Recreation Department because they were neighbors. Under Belle, the Rec Department took over the Fourth of July parade, which was a big deal, the 5K run, the baseball tournament. You couldn’t live on Sherman Ave. without getting involved in helping on Halloween and Easter and Christmas. My mother made all the Easter bunny costumes for the Easter egg hunt.
A couple years later mom was appointed to the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Board. When a developer wanted to build townhouses on the land behind our house, she and the neighborhood fought it and kept fighting for 25 years. She wanted the county to buy the land and make it a park. We played there anyway. Belle used to cut the grass so the kids could play ball.
Finally the county bought the land in 1988 and turned it into a park. Mom had died of cancer in the spring of 1988 and we wanted to name the park after her. Parks aren’t usually given people’s names, just geographic locations. So Buddy and I went around the neighborhood and got 400 signatures to name it after her. And the Planning Board did, because for years they had worked with her.
People ask me, where are you going to retire to? That’s a silly question, are you crazy! I moved away after I graduated college, but came back here after Kent State in 1970. I’m going to retire to Takoma Park. This is my life, this is where I learned everything important in my life.
Diana Kohn is Education Chair of Historic Takoma, an all-volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of Takoma Park MD and DC. For more information on the history of this community and the progress on the renovation of the organization’ new headquarters, visit www.historictakoma.org. To view the collection of previous Takoma Archives, visit www.takoma.com.