Kathy Wilson, longtime director of the Abracadabra Preschool, died unexpectedly in her sleep last week of heart disease. She was 54.
Originally from Quonset Point, R.I., Wilson's father was a Navy pilot who later flew planes for private airlines. Cheryl Higdon, her cousin, remembers Wilson as a precocious child.
"When she and I would play together growing up, she would always do something that our grandmother told us not to do," Higdon remembered. "And then she would try to blame me!"
Wilson graduated from Parkway West High School in St. Louis. At the University of Missouri, she received a bachelor of science in education in 1973 and a master of arts in education in 1976. She also met her husband, Paul Wilson, on the campus of the university.
HER FIRST JOB was with TWA as a flight attendant, but the job did not agree with her.
"When she realized that the position was just a glorified waitress, she promptly left," said Bruce Higdon, her brother. "She thought there was little chance for advancement at TWA."
After leaving the airline industry, Wilson worked in hotel sales. After a short time at a Missouri hotel, she was named "Top Sales Person." But promptly quit when she learned that two male colleagues whom she trained were paid more money than she was.
That's when she moved to Washington, D.C. to join the emerging woman's movement.
"She wasn't a radical feminist, but she did not like discrimination," Higdon said. "If she thought a woman was making less than a man for the same work, that wouldn't fly."
Wilson went to work as a social science research analyst with the United States Department of Labor. She joined the National Women's Political Caucus, becoming chairwoman in 1979. As caucus president, she was influential in the Senate confirmation of Sandra Day O'Connor and the vice presidential nomination of Geraldine Ferraro. She also campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment.
The "Ladies Home Journal" once named her one of "America's 100 Most Important Women" and the "Washingtonian" magazine named her one of "Washington's Most Influential" people in 1985.
At her wake last week, a television set greeted visitors to the Temple Baptist Church. Wilson's smiling face and quick wit were on the videocassette. Taped to the top of the television set was a piece of paper that read "The Kathy Wilson Show." The episodes were from a show that was under consideration for Lifetime in 1987. The cable network didn't pick up the show about relationships between men and women, but visitors to the wake were grateful to be reminded of Wilson's repartee.
"All of the Higdons had a good sense of humor," said Sharon Higdon, her sister-in-law. "They say you can't be a Higdon if you don't have a good sense of humor."
IN 1991, SHE STARTED working at Resurrection Children's Center — a second career that would become the calling of a lifetime. For 14 years, she served as director of Abracadabra Preschool, a nonsectarian ministry of Baptist Temple Church.
"Her focus was always children," said Chris George, associate pastor of the church. "She saw the best in children, often kids that were considered 'problem children.' She saw things that other people overlooked."
Her personality made her a hit with the kids and an effective director.
"She was very outgoing and very friendly. The kids loved her," said Bob Bullock, building supervisor with the church. "But she didn't mind telling you what was what, and what was necessary."
She served on several committees for the Alexandria Early Childhood Commission, advocating for higher pay for teachers. As part of the Early Childhood Education Directors, Wilson focused her attention on sensory integration and development of the "whole child." Earlier this year, she helped put together a sensory integration playground at Abracadabra, featuring bleached sand, river rocks, water tables, painting easels, play saws and a miniature grand prix race track.
Peter Chandler, whose daughter attended Abracadabra, remembers Wilson as a "stick of dynamite with a smile." Walking through the playground during the wake, he remembered Wilson's sense of determination.
"She was a fantastic planner," Chandler said. "You don't get something like this without having a vision of what it could be. She was like that, and she knew what it would take to make something like this happen."
"That playground is like Six Flags for two year olds," said Marsha Call, a longtime friend. "Kathy had such a magnetic personality, with children and adults."
Call said her commitment to the preschool was unending, even to the point where she would clean the toilets. Wilson's work with children made her a valuable part of the education community in the city.
"In the early childhood community, she will be sorely missed," said School Board Chairwoman Mollie Danforth. "She was a wonderful person."
She is survived by her husband, Paul Wilson of Alexandria; her daughter, Casey Rose Wilson of New York City and Los Angeles; her son, Fletcher Todd Wilson of Philadelphia; her father, Marion "Red" Higdon of Pensacola, Fla.; her brother Bruce Higdon; her sister-in-law, Sharon Higdon; her nephew, Brian Higdon; her sister-in-law, Ann Wilson Goodrich; her brother-in-law, Ralph Goodrich; and her beloved beagle, Josie.
She was preceded in death by her brother, Alan Brian Higdon, and her mother, Rita Higdon.