Who is Kathryn Kay?

Battle of the Bards is a Kathryn Kay legacy competition, which begs the question:

Who was Kathryn Kay?

Newspaper article of Kathryn Kay at the Chisholm Trail book release.

If you’ve heard of The Utah State Poetry Society or the League of Utah Writers, then you’re already familiar with part of Kathryn Kay’s legacy.

In the 1940s, Kathryn paired up with a man named C. Cameron Johns and others to celebrate excellent writing in Utah. This resulted in the formation of the aforementioned organizations — both of which still exist today — along with annual poetry contests that lasted over 2 decades.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Kathryn was well into her 40s and beyond when all this happened.

Let’s start at the beginning.

From “Catherine” to “Kathryn”

Kathryn Kay was born Catherine Worsley on October 21, 1906, and she is Sheralyn’s (BATTLE of the BARD’s host) paternal grandmother.

Kathryn’s fascination with words and language started at a young age and ultimately led to her legally changing the spelling of her given name when she was a pre-teen.

She decided that:

  • The “C” beginning her name was too ambiguous
  • the two “E”s were superfluous
  • and the “I” was just plain boring

Yes, she had a traditional name with traditional spelling and everyone knew how to say it, but traditional didn’t really describe her. Plus, she wanted to stand out and leave her mark.

After much thought, Catherine decided wanted to change the spelling of her name to Kathryn, and petitioned her mother for the change. 

The conversation went a little like this:

“No disrespect, Mom. But I’ve given it a lot of thought,
and this spelling’s just more me.”

“Okay, dear. If you think it will make a difference,
we can legally change the spelling of your name.”

“Thanks for your support, Mom!”

So Kathryn it was. Just after that, Kathryn published her first poem in the paper. It was a poem she wrote at age 13 regarding a bout of pneumonia where she thought she might die.

While dancing with a 104-degree fever, she wrote:

If I Should Die

If I should die —
perhaps I should say “When,”
and leave this dismal world
of Eve-made men,
what would I leave?
No thought — no part of me —
and in a single heart
no memory,
a silenced laugh —
a bubble passing by —
the fading of a dream —
if I should die.

Published 1920, in the Salt Lake Telegram

Happily, she made a full recovery and never found out what she would leave undone if she died young.

How Radio took her From “Worsley” to “Kay”

The “Kay” that effectively became her surname came to be about a decade later after she moved to Hollywood and became the hostess of the Midnight Frolic—a late-night show on one of the only 50,000-watt radio stations in the world: KFI in Los Angeles.

This meant the show essentially had a national audience.

By this point, she was known simply as Kay, and was introduced as Miss Kay on the Midnight Frolic. Radios easily fell out of tune back then, so it was important that sound was always coming from the speaker.

Miss Kay was essentially the Patron Saint of No Dead Airwaves. When there was a lull, that was Miss Kay’s cue to monologue or interview celebrities of the time to make sure that no one tuning in was ever met with the sound of silence.

And she was very good at her job.

It wasn’t until she was at a party where someone asked her full name for an autograph that Kay realized she had a decision to make.

Her real last name (Worsley) was too sibilant for the old, carbon microphones. Kay was simple and worked perfectly.

Unsure what to do, Kay went in to talk to her boss, Carl Haverlin, about it. It was he who decided that her name and her nickname made for a great sign-on name, deeming her, “Kathryn Kay, the woman who put the ‘Kay’ into KFI.”

And the name stayed with her for the rest of her life.

Time in L.A.

News clipping of Kathryn Kay with Mrs. Hobart Bosworth, anticipating a bronze plaque of her poem atop Mt. Whitney. Article: November 28, 1941

During her decades in Los Angeles, Kathryn Kay did a little bit of everything. She hosted radio shows with celebrities, helped run the Broadway Bookstore, and was even the event manager on Catalina Island for P.K. Wrigley (of gum and stadium fame).

But poetry was always a part of her life. She published books of poetry. including:

  • With Tongue in Cheek
  • If the Shoe Fits
  • Practically Apparent

(Note: She was always adamant about retaining her own copyright, and made a point to renew the copyright on all her work in 1997).

Newspaper article announcing publication of With Tongue in Cheek" by Kathryn Kay

In 1941, she nearly had one of her poems immortalized on Mt. Whitney in the form of a bronze plaque. But the day of the ceremony was December 7.

That day, Pearl Harbor was bombed, war immediately declared, and the plaque was melted down as part of the war effort.

End of WWII and Divorce Bring Kathryn back to Salt Lake

Kathryn returned to Salt Lake as a divorced, single mother. Not exactly a popular thing to be in the 1940s but she didn’t let it stop her.

She raised her boys, worked hard, and on the day she met the man she would spend the rest of her life with, he was donating blood and she was managing donations.

She walked into her office and, upon seeing him, said, “Wow. My office has never looked so good.”

Her future husband (who didn’t know it yet) was a shy man who wasn’t sure exactly how to reply.

“Tell me,” she continued. “Do you like kids?”

“Well, I have 14 brothers and sisters,” he replied. “I guess you could say I do.”

“Good!” she said with a bright smile. “Because I have two!”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Celebrating Poetry in Utah

The passion for words that caused her to read every book she could get her hands on as a child never left Kathryn, and the last half of her life was largely devoted to educating young writers and celebrating their work.

She loved the art of writing and always came at it with an eye aiming for excellence. She didn’t care if you were old or young. You could learn to do it well.

Starting in 1950, Kathryn focused on The Utah State Poetry Society, serving as its president, but also stepping down to allow others a chance to fill prestigious roles.

In 1965, she and C. Cameron Johns established the State Poetry Contest that ran for a little over two decades. It was highly promoted (i.e., it often became a class assignment) in public schools.

She loved celebrating and rewarding excellence. She also believed in fair play and had zero patience for those who thought their preference to be lazier than others made them an exception to general rules.

As her granddaughter, it is my goal to bring all these qualities into the BATTLE of the BARDS legacy competition.

Rules will always be clear, excellence rewarded, and education offered. Because that’s how Kathryn Kay did it.

Others hold writing competitions for their own reasons, but this one is about a thoughtful legacy that deserves to continue on.

I hope you enjoy it!

Want to learn more about Kathryn Kay? Visit her website.

AND REMEMBER: All Kathryn Kay’s work is copyrighted, so no selling it without written permission. Please, don’t steal my grandma’s poetry like it’s public domain. It’s not.

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