Takoma Flashback: Kay Daniels Cohen was the Talk of Takoma

The December 2012 issue of the Takoma Voice introduced two new city councilmembers with the headline “Takoma Park stalwarts step up to the dais.” In his Talk of Takoma column, Howard Kohn wrote about Seth Grimes and Kay Daniels-Cohen, perennial activists who were “ready to shake things up.”

Below is Howard’s profile of Kay, who passed away Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014,  after a bout with cancer

Vote for Kay Daniels-Cohen by Julie Wiatt

Kay Daniels-Cohen
Takoma Park City Council, Ward 3

“He wanted to know what I was all about”

by Howard Kohn

December 2012—Campaigns for student government are always unpredictable and a bit homespun, but if bookies had been handicapping the candidacy of Kay Daniels at the University of Maryland in the early 1960s the odds would have been long.

To start with, she was commuting from her family home in Takoma Park. Each morning she parked her car on campus and festooned it with signs and banners she had painted herself. Some were on fabric, and one was on a black wooden board, which she moved about. All were in vivid colors, primarily purple and red.

Kay attracted all manner of attention and, ultimately, scads of votes, more votes than any previous candidate in the history of the school, in fact. “It blew everyone away,” Kay said the other day with her trademark can-you-believe-it laugh.

“Afterward Steny Hoyer came to see me. He was in Sigma Chi, and he was a numero uno.  He wanted to know what I was all about.”

Steny is currently numero dos in the United States Congress, but he might be forgiven if he never figured out Kay.

After an almost half-century intermission from the political game Kay was elected in November to her hometown City Council, from Ward Three, and in her first appearance on the Council dais she stole the show simply by saying “Yikes!”

For people puzzled by such free-spirited wonderment Kay had this to say, “I can only be myself. I can’t be anyone else.”

It should be no surprise that in one of her first campaign appearances last fall, at a picnic in the Pinecrest neighborhood, she wore a sandwich board, brightly painted and, for maximum effect, highlighted with star-spangled glitter.

Kay’s election, well into her Social Security years, comes as a fulfillment in a life that never strayed far from the Americana of the house on Sherman Avenue where she grew up and where she lives today with her third husband and her brother.

In 1946, when Kay was three, her mother Opal took her on an all-day bus trip from Arlington, where they then lived, to the county seat of Rockville in order to register the deed for their new Takoma Park house. The family became a fixture in town, involved in everything, and, later on, a neighboring park was named for Opal.

“Everyone knew who we were, but, at the same time, we were never part of polite society,” Kay said. “My mom and dad always said what had to be said. They didn’t mince words, and I guess I’m the same way.”

At the University of Maryland, a few years before sit-ins and other forms of protest became fashionable; Kay and friends occupied the front yard of the president’s house.  Upon graduation Kay worked for a while at the University of West Virginia and couldn’t resist, in a local run of “Camelot,” inserting an outrageously large peace sign into the play.

West Virginia did not hold a future.  “I left before they kicked me out. I couldn’t stand it. It was moonshine and gambling, and, meanwhile, Vietnam and the Moratorium and Kent State were happening.”

Kay’s subsequent career, spent mainly in Hyattsville, encompassed two husbands, a variety of jobs (“a bonsai store, for one, and also a direct-mail business with clients from the animal-cruelty people to Richard Viguerie”) and frequent sojourns to Takoma Park (“I was here almost every day. I always sold raffle tickets for July Fourth, and I was a judge in the Ben Franklin kite-flying contest, and one year I had to sew the bunny costume for the Easter Egg Hunt because I was the bunny!”).

In 2003 she came home for good, back to Sherman Avenue. Her brother Buddy Daniels, a hero at the precinct level in the Democratic Party, had never left, but mice had eaten away at the house.  Kay and her third husband Jack Cohen oversaw a major fix-up.

Kay and Jack had been married on July Fourth in 1993 with a balloon launch from the sparse grass of Opal Daniels Park.  They had sent out only a few invitations, but a crowd showed up. “The word got out,” she said.

Then last year, after making her mark as a civic volunteer (she helped start a basketball league and a youth garden and made her neighborhood association relevant again), Kay decided to join the political establishment. “You’re only young once,” she said with her laugh.


Featured image: Kay Daniels-Cohen, flanked by Voice columnist Howard Kohn and former Takoma Park Mayor Kathy Porter. Photos by Jule Wiatt.