When a retired city administrator moves to a new home in Old Town, she discovers that downsizing in the Bay can mean a major expansion of life.
- story and photographs by Ellis Anderson
Social interactions were rare to non-existent. When she came down with a bad case of flu, a friend drove over from Pascagoula to help out. The experience was a wake-up call. She realized she was living in a ghost town of sorts.
“After having worked for cities so many years, I needed true community,” she says.
Friends suggested that she unplug and go on a weekend retreat, to give herself a space to contemplate what she truly wanted in her future and where she wanted to live. Kay still has the hand-written pages from that weekend. The checklist she came up with is very specific.
She wanted her new home to be in a small community with open-minded people. It had to be one where she could be involved in civic projects and make a difference by volunteering. She also wanted her new town to be close to family and friends, to be located close to the water, as well as safe and walkable - and to have good restaurants.
It was a long list, but when she thought about it, Bay St. Louis – a city she used to manage - fit the bill on every count. One of her two grown daughters even lived a stone’s throw away.
Next, she started working on a list for her perfect house. Kay wasn’t looking for anything large or elaborate since she was down-sizing. But she wanted a fireplace. A garage for her old rag-top Thunderbird. It’d be near beach, with a least some sunset view. Other items on her wish list were a fire pit, a small yard and a large tub and a big closet.
Kay ended up renting an apartment in Bay St. Louis for more than a year while she shopped for a new home. Realtors showed her houses with garages and no fireplace. Or homes with a fireplace and no garage. But she held out, believing that one day, every box on her list would be checked.
Finally, her good friend, Nikki Moon, owner of the Bay Town Inn, tipped Kay off. She’d heard a house on Necaise Avenue was being built by a couple who had started it for themselves. There’d been a change of plans, so they were going to put it on the market. Kay toured the unfinished home. Although it was half the size of her condo in Florida, the level of detailing in the home made a big impression.
Even the sunset box on her list got a check mark: From the house’s small back porch, she’d be able to see the sun sink below the horizon – at least during part of the year. Best of all, while the yard was small, two enormous oak trees flanked the house.
“I felt at home as soon as I walked in,” Kay says.
The house sale closed on Halloween day, 2017. Friends who had helped Kay move some things in lingered for the traditional neighborhood trick-or-treating. Dozens of costumed children and watchful parents strolled the streets, visiting and laughing. The joy and camaraderie apparent in her new neighborhood made the day unforgettable.
But more lists were in store for Kay. The drastic downsizing required that she look at each of her belongings and furnishings to decide which was most cherished and what would be sold. Two lists were made – the keepsakes and the things she’d give up.
She prioritized family memorabilia and artwork from travels and furnishings with sentimental attachment - like a small, plain bookcase that belonged to her mother. Meaning took precedence over assessed value.
Among the keepers that found a place in the new house is a pie safe Kay’s father rebuilt for her mother – a home economics teacher. There’s a vintage painting of a man she long ago bought in a Main Street shop. Since she has no idea who the model is, Kay nicknamed the man in the painting “G.W.,” for “Guess Who.”
"This portrait was purchased from Carol and Mary’s coffee shop where Gabby’s is now. I can’t remember the exact name of the cafe. I was always drawn to it and after sitting (or attempting to) for a portrait, I felt sorry for whoever this man was that he spent so much time to have no one treasure his portrait. A friend purchased it for me as a surprise and he has traveled with me to a place of honor in each of my homes since. We call him G.W. for Guess Who."
There’s also the teaching certificate of her namesake great-aunt, a set of intricate dollhouse furniture made by her grandfather from tin cans, and her mother’s lace wedding dress – sewn by the industrious bride. These are Kay Kell’s real treasures, the ones of the heart. These items are spread like touchstones throughout the interior, even making their way into the kitchen.
A good friend from Texas, Marlene Breedlove, helped Kay with the interior design aspect of the new house, so the antiques and memorabilia and artwork from places like Australia and Italy now mesh comfortably with contemporary furnishings and fixtures.
Since the house is on a corner, it has two primary entrances, each opening up to the main living area (with fireplace, check!) and kitchen. The dining room is part of the mix, but tucked off to the side a bit, giving it a more intimate feel. Kay, who enjoys entertaining, laughs about the energy vortex in the center of the living area.
“No matter where you tell everyone to sit, they’re all going to wind up around the kitchen island,” she says.
Also on the main floor is the master suite, with windows overlooking the courtyard.
Kay: "This H.C. Porter print is of two of my grandchildren. Sydney Anderson and Laney Anderson, in front of their home after Katrina in Hancock County. The door is painted House of Broken Dreams. The small prints below them are from a little book given to me by my sister Hilda Smith who died in the late 1990’s of ovarian cancer. I always put them around my bathtubs so they can inspire me while I bathe.
Upstairs, two more bedrooms open up to a central “library” area. Kay uses one as a guest room and the other as her office. Each has glass doors that open to the second-floor covered balcony, tucked beneath the massive boughs of a live oak tree.
"This is an old photo of my Mom’s family, the Koonce family. John Christopher Ellington Koonce (born 24 Jul 1866) married Emma Youngblood (born 30 Oct. 1885). Children include my grandfather Phillip Anderson Koonce (born 22 Jul 1886), and Malinda Koonce (born 15 Oct 1892). I was named Linda K after Malinda who died young of tuberculosis."
It’s only one of several outdoor living spaces - the cunningly designed house has them on all four sides. There’s the open front porch facing the oak and a screened porch built around the house’s State Street entrance.
On the opposite side, where the house sits close to the lot line, a narrower porch overlooks a hot tub. Fencing and plantings give the nook a cloistered, private feel. In back, the pleasant New Orleans style courtyard is shaded by the canopy of another huge oak tree.
But the porch swing hanging from a stout limb of the oak in front has become Kay’s favorite outside hangout.
“I sit out in my swing and people just stop and visit as they’re passing by,” Kay says. “It’s one of my favorite things about the neighborhood.”
Growing up as “something of a gypsy,” since her father’s work in the oil industry kept the family on the move, Kay’s now happy to land in a community with close neighborhood ties and a welcoming attitude. The civic-minded retiree has also found plenty of opportunities to continue “making a difference.”
Since moving to Bay St. Louis, Kay has been serving on the boards of the Hancock Tourism Commission and the Hancock Resource Center. She remains a pivotal part of the Southern Rail Commission since 1992, (having chaired it several times in the past 25 years) because she’s passionate about getting passenger rail service re-established on the coast. She only recently resigned after a long stint on the board of Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“Volunteering gives me the chance to work with younger people too,” says Kay. “They have great energy and fresh ideas.”
But Kay’s recently taken on a job that wasn’t on any of her lists. Ever. In June, she was crowned the 2018 Queen of the Mystic Krewe of the Seahorse.
When her reign started in June, she and 2018 King Henry Winters started a new royal tradition: A 50 – 50 drawing at each of the monthly gatherings raises money for different local charities. So far this year, Seahorse has lent a hand to several local organizations and projects, including the Waveland school system – the krewe’s donations are helping them build a sensory lab for autistic students.
To help out other non-profits, the royal duo also adds color by making appearances at various events and benefits. Next up on their schedule is the Waveland Library, where Kay’s daughter works. The King and Queen will be reading books to children.
Kay’s queen costume has a special significance now – it was designed by her dear friend, legendary Mardi Gras costume designer Carter Church, who passed away recently. She’ll be wearing the elaborate golden garb for the rest of her reign as a tribute to his work.
Church was also a founding member of Seahorse and had encouraged Kay to join the recently formed krewe when she first moved to town. Since the organization was created with the mission of bettering the community and many of her long-time friends were already members, it’s a natural fit that’s been “a lot of fun.”
Kay may be retired and settled in her dream home, but she hasn’t left her lists behind. Between her royal duties, her many board responsibilities and a very active social life (that includes new friends and old), she stays “very, very busy.”
“When I retired, I said I’d look for a job when I got bored,” she says. “But I haven’t gotten bored at all. I feel like my life is just beginning.”