Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Tip of the Hi-Hat to Kay

Anyone who attended City Council meetings a while back could count on Kay Cotignola to take elected officials to task, but not in a scolding way.

Kay had a sense of comic timing equal to that of Johnny Carson and a flair for drama that surely deserved some kind of statuette. Even before she took the microphone, people started smiling. The words came out less like poison darts than cream pies to the faces of the authorities. Her topics ranged from taxes to people blocking her driveway, but all took on weight as Kay delivered her message in inimitable style.

She didn’t need the standard two snare-drum hits and a cymbal crash when she made her point with humor. After the laughter died down and while people were still wiping their eyes, she would draw herself up to say, “And the other one is …”

And people would start laughing all over again, in anticipation of more potshots worthy of rimshots.

Kay died Nov. 13 at age 86, according to an obituary in the Courier News. Services are 9 a.m. Thursday (Nov. 16, 2006) at Scarpa Funeral Home in North Plainfield. A 10 a.m. Mass at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, Plainfield will be followed by burial at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Plainfield. Visitation is 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Kay’s most fervent concern was for Albert Bierstadt’s 1892 painting, The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador. The city-owned painting was on display in Municipal Court for many years, except when it was on loan to a museum. Kay didn’t want it ever to leave the city and even dressed up as Columbus in protest at one council meeting, telling people, "I am Christopher Columbus and I just jumped out of that art. You leave me alone."

As much as it was a source of pride in Italian heritage to Kay, the painting was anathema to Rasheed Abdul-Haqq and others who objected to its depiction of indigenous people kneeling before the explorer. Kay took them all on, along with officials who permitted the painting to leave the city.

A long-term loan to a museum in Washington was cut short after Kay launched a campaign to get it back, said Jean Licata, who often accompanied her to council meetings.

“Kay made the loudest noise and that painting came back,” Jean said.

Jean recalled another controversy over whether the city should have a “super-chief” who would take the place of separate police and fire chiefs. Kay and friends constructed a two-headed effigy, half in firefighter garb and half in police gear, which they displayed in a July Fourth parade and at a council meeting. Kay fought so hard against the plan that it failed in a public vote, Jean said.

“I’ll never forget the work Kay did,” she said.

Another friend, Jackie Schmitz, said Kay put a coffin in the window of her dry cleaning store and stuck the effigy in it with a sign, “Superchief is dead.”

“I knew her for 86 years,” Jackie said. “I looked forward to her coming to the mike.”

Another incident involved Kay’s frequent comments to a split council about the voting pattern of its five Democrats and two Republicans. Kay was intoning, “Fiive to two, fiiive to two!” one evening when an intoxicated street person walked in the rear door of the council chambers and began dancing up the aisle to Kay’s chant. When he reached her, Kay joined in the dance, Jean said.

Not only did the citizens relish Kay’s appearances, her antics made it hard for some council members to keep a straight face. Jean recalls the late Councilwoman Helen Miller trying to stifle her laughter when Kay did her stints at the microphone.

“She was just fun, that’s all,” Jean said.

--Bernice Paglia


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