Downtown View: A Life Well Lived

Katharine Kane died last week at age 78. She lived in downtown Boston almost all her adult years. If there was a person who showed how one should live a full life, it was Katharine Elizabeth Fitzhugh Daniels Kane.

I know her full name and much about her, not because we were good friends, although we were friendly. I learned about her because I had the privilege of interviewing her three and a half weeks before she died. I also had interviewed her in years past and I took a course she conducted through Beacon Hill Seminars.

The impression I got about Kathy was that she was a person who seized every opportunity to be engaged with life, and she made the most of every advantage she was given. She was the only child of a prominent Indianapolis couple, but was grateful for her dozens of cousins. She made the most of a good education at Miss Porter’s and then at Smith by going to Washington after college and serving at the White House and then at the CIA.

When she married, it was not to just no one. Louis Kane, who died in 2000, must have been one of the handsomest men Boston has ever produced. It turned out he was as intense about his life as Kathy was about hers. He was a cook, a skier, and a businessman who later would help found Au Bon Pain and Panera. On their first date he invited Kathy to help him move him from one apartment to another. It must have been a satisfying moving of house because they married shortly thereafter. Louis was Jewish, and Kathy was Protestant. Their 1950s families may have been concerned that they was marrying outside their faith. But if they were, Kathy said, they didn’t mention it.

Not wasting time, the Kanes soon moved to Boston and had three children in four years. Then Kathy started volunteering with the League of Women Voters, and was eventually president of that organization, which produced many effective women of her era. She ran for state rep in 1964 and 1966 and won, but in 1967, she went to work for Kevin White as a deputy mayor.

Her work for the White administration was an exercise in imagination, fun and achievement that had not been equaled before and has not been equaled since. It’s possible her efforts did more to bring the city to life and make it seem livable than any other factor.

She created Summerthing, with activities in all the neighborhoods that celebrated the arts and enlivened every part of Boston. She directed Boston 200, the celebration of America’s 200th birthday. Not content to hold a simple party, she again spread the excitement to the neighborhoods and to the communities of artists, literary types, medicine, science and religion. She also enlisted local institutions, almost all of whom mounted exhibits, lectures, performances, readings and movies, the most wonderful of which was “Where’s Boston?” created by the Cambridge Seven. She also helped get Boston’s First Night off the ground and managed to persuade the Tall Ships to stop by for a visit. Kathy worked her magic again in 1980, directing Jubilee 350, which celebrated the founding of Boston 350 years before. The Tall Ships returned.

Everyone who met her enjoyed working with her, so when she called on such friends as Smoki Bacon to help with event planning, they signed up. When she called on Boston’s business leaders to fund the celebrations, they didn’t want to be left out, so she raised millions of dollars to support the events.

All the time, she was running a household, raising children, collecting wonderful contemporary art and enjoying Louis’s activities as a fundraiser for Harvard, the ICA and other organizations. Some of her habits were traditional, but she wasn’t afraid to break the mold.

When Kevin White left office, Kathy left too, forming her own consulting company, creating cultural programs and celebrations both in the U.S. and abroad.

She was as creative in her own life as she was in the celebrations she put on. At age 60, she enrolled at Harvard Divinity School and threw her enthusiasm into studying women in religion. She possessed the papers of her great-aunt, who served as a Presbyterian missionary in Tabriz and probably would have written a book about that unusual woman had she lived longer. She served as a hospital chaplain and, continuing her habits of curiosity, found an intellectual home with Beacon Hill Seminars.

Kathy Kane was a fine example of the characteristics that make some people fascinating. Her excitement at life, her good choices, her ease in breaking stereotypes, her confidence in her own ability to get things done, her investment in learning and in people, and her sense of fun made her a good person, a good friend, a good family member, a good pastor and a good neighbor to all of us in downtown Boston.

I want more Summerthings, more First Nights and more “Where’s Bostons?” I want more Kathy Kanes. We have many good people in Boston, but we’d still be a better off in this city if there were more people like her.

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