One Tough Lady

No Nonsense Kay Wyrick

Story By Maryanne Moon Boyen

    Kay Wyrick could have been a statistic, a mere victim of life’s circumstances. At a tender age, she had plenty of fodder for a future of victimhood; born in Hartford in 1923, by the age of nine she was placed in the custody of the State of Connecticut.

    The little girl, Katherine Daniels then, did not have the luxury of warm, muffin-filled mornings in a sunlit kitchen with sweet smells wafting around a woman in an apron making breakfast.

    By then, Kay’s dad was dead, her brother had been sent to Georgia and her “home” was the Long Lane Industrial School for Girls in Middletown.Her mom was simply unable to be a mother.

    “Mom was on welfare, drinking herself to death,” said 81-year-old Kay, looking back.

    But Katherine Daniels “Kay” Wyrick was just too contrary, too stubborn and way too smart to live a life blown only by the winds of chance. She wanted to chart the course of her life. She did. Then she spent much of her adult life helping Waterbury’s young people.

    “Kay Wyrick has always been a trailblazer,” said Joyce Jones, a retired Waterbury educator. “ She has a deep love and affection for children, all children, not just African-American children.”

     When asked how and why she overcame a tough childhood, Wyrick said, “I listened. I learned. I learned how to use my head. I was very stubborn and I don’t want anyone to think I’m gonna stop.”

     Her simple advice for youth is to “work, earn and learn.” As a nine-year-old, she responded to the guidance of her social worker, whom she affectionately refers to as “Miss Meecum.” They kept in touch until the woman died at age 90. “In those days, social workers worked with the kids,” said Wyrick.

    The Long Lane institution was very structured; Kay loved to work. She still does. Like the old-timers who know that a brisk walk and an orange can do the same thing that a modern therapist does, she believes in the power of work.

    Wyrick came to Waterbury as a domestic when she was thirteen. She’s worked ever since. She married a saint of a man, retired police officer, James Wyrick, raised two daughters - Joyce and Debbie - with him and together, they have helped over 75 foster children.

    Kay worked for a doctor when she got to Waterbury. She was also part of a club called the Go-Getters. One day they were at the Pearl Street Neighborhood House and James arrived. “When he walked in the room, I melted,” said Kay. They have been married for over sixty years.

    If the referees of life called the Fates, made some unfair calls at the beginning of her life, they added a make-up call when James Wyrick walked in that room. “He is just a doll, an absolute doll,” said Patricia Mayfield, a family friend and retiree from the state of Connecticut.

    Wyrick, who frequently wears fishing derby hats with all kinds of anti-this buttons and anti-that messages, is a tough broad. She does not care if she is talking to an errant teenager or a mighty king. She will state what she thinks in terms that leave no doubt about her opinion.

    A few years ago, she was at the Connecticut Junior Republic on Prospect Street during a weekday anti-tobacco seminar for teens, in preparation for the annual youth rally against tobacco in Hartford. The moderator was attempting to appeal to the teens’ intellects in an obvious long-term approach to change their behaviors. She pointed out the dastardly marketing techniques of tobacco companies; there were copies of internal documents that clearly stated the company was targeting inner city youth because of the stresses on their lives.

    Simultaneously, the moderator was very soft on the kids if they happened to be smokers. Again, with a long-term approach, the kids may realize they were played for fools and eventually throw the butts out in defiance. Their self-esteem was being guarded as was their immaturity.

    Kay does not have a lot of tolerance for subtlety. “Just tell them not to smoke,” she said. “They shouldn’t be smoking.”

    Patricia Mayfield said that she has known Wyrick all of her life. “She has an overall commitment to children.”

    In the 1960s Wyrick would get buses for kids to see plays in New York or American bandstand-type events in the state.

    “She would do anything that was culturally enhancing,” said Mayfield.

    In those years, Wyrick and her husband James, became foster parents and purchased an old 13-car barn on Caroline Street, creating Pride House. Kay and James made a dorm-room setting for “troubled” girls. In keeping with the idea that work is good, she taught the teens to take care of themselves.

    “Every Saturday, I took them to the laundry mat,” she said. “She has a strong sense that you have to be responsible for yourself, not a system,” said Mayfield.

    Later, in 1967, the couple raised money to purchase the old Salvation Army building at 186 Cherry Street and founded the PRIDE, which stands for Preserving Racial Identity through Development of Education. Today, 37 years later, the building services about 65 children per week from ages 6-18. They do cultural activities like African dance and also have some joint programs with the Connecticut Junior Republic. In February, there will be a Black History Jeopardy event and a Soul Food Extravanza.  The PRIDE is open Tuesday through Friday.

    Waterbury’s Promise is also housed at the PRIDE Cultural Center. The program helps develop youth leadership for inner-city kids and offers healthy lifestyle workshops.

    Wyrick is sometimes accused of being too tough, uncompromising. Her intent is pure, though. She does not believe in being other than honest with kids. She knows the ramifications of a wrong turn in their lives. “You have to start out right with ‘em,” she says. “You can’t play with ‘em.”

    She also does not coddle the politicians. She refers to the first Mayor Bergin as “Old Man Bergin.” She can pull out encouraging notes from former governor, John G. Rowland. Once, before U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman ran for vice-president, he was at the PRIDE for a visit. As he walked in the door, surrounded by press, she pointed up to the crumbling ceiling and said, “Would you please help with that?” Then she said hello.

    “She will challenge the establishment when it comes to children,” said Patricia Mayfield. “She has challenged governors, mayors, political appointees and she has challenged them publicly.”

    Wyrick says that she always asks the politicians to “come into the hood and see what’s happening.”

    She said that the late Malcolm Baldrige, who worked for Ronald Reagan, used to take her up on the offer. He would play pool in the pool halls with local guys.

    Mayfield says that Wyrick thinks we have over-researched and over-analyzed things concerning youth.

    “Why does it have to be so complicated? “asks Wyrick. She has no more patience for studies. “ I have never seen so much money coming into Waterbury for studying,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

    Wyrick likes the No Child Left Behind law. “I love it,” she says. She thinks keeping kids active, having the right mentors and finding jobs are keys to success. It’s simple in Kay’s mind. Work, earn, learn.

    It’s simple to Kay. Get everybody who deals with youth-from churches to social services to the state-at the same table. Have a good plan and good people and then work together.

    “You need a plan that’s gonna work,” she said. “You need people. You need money. They are all components. You have to have the people who are dedicated,” she said. She bristles at the complexity of issues today. “Do you remember the war on poverty? Well, nothing has changed,” she says matter-of-factly.

   Briarsen Burke is a 19-year-old college student who is also the program director at the PRIDE. He attended the after-school programs as a Wilby High School student before he graduated in 2003.

    “Her no-nonsense approach works,” said Briarsen. He would know. He said that there were days when he went home complaining that he would never return to the PRIDE. And he did, again and again.

    It’s not true that nothing has changed. Much has changed and Kay Wyrick has been in the forefront. She is in the Silas Bronson Library’s Waterbury Hall of Fame. She received the 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut State African American Affairs Commission in their third annual awards ceremony. She has been a member of the NAACP for over fifty years.

    The Masons gave her a community service award. She has been honored by the Waterbury Bar Association and the Anderson Boys’ Club. She founded the Waterbury Chapter of the National Congress of Black Women and the Waterbury Parenting Coalition International, Inc. She has been a member of the juvenile justice advisory committee at the state for years.

    Though she is over eighty years old, and her body is slowing down, her soul is not. She is just as feisty as ever. She wants to shake people up about education.

    “I’m not holding nothing back anymore,” she said. “I don’t care who doesn’t like me.”