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Katherine 'Kay' Constant, who didn't let polio stop her, dies at 96

Katherine "Kay" Constant of Glen Head died Aug.

Katherine "Kay" Constant of Glen Head died Aug. 19. She was 96. Credit: Constant Family

She contracted polio as a young child, had to learn to walk again, wearing a leg brace and needing crutches for the remainder of her life.

But Katherine "Kay" Constant was nothing if not determined.

Her parents, both Greek immigrants, taught her never to take no for an answer. And with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself a polio survivor, as a role model, she was bent not only on perseverance but on community service.

As she once confided to a longtime friend, former New York Times reporter and columnist George Vecsey, "I never thought of myself as disabled."

"She was fierce to be treated like everybody else," son Robert Constant of Mill Neck said this week. "She didn't want anything from anybody except fair treatment."

Kay Constant of Glen Head died Aug. 19. She was 96.

Born March 3, 1924, Katherine Harris began life, the eldest of two daughters of Louis and Sophia Harris, in Fall River, Massachusetts.

But at age 3 she was struck down by polio, an infectious disease that, before the advent of the Salk vaccine in 1950, plagued millions across the globe — especially during the early 20th century.

It left Kay unable to walk, her left leg permanently weakened.

It didn't stop her.

"That she had polio was not uncommon," Robert Constant said. "What is more uncommon about my mother's story is what happened beyond that point."

Kay endured surgeries designed to strengthen weakened muscles. She was given crutches, fitted for a leg brace. Her father, determined to give his daughter the best chance for normalcy, moved the family to Florida, hoping the warm weather would aid in her recovery. He opened a restaurant in Miami Beach where Kay often lent a hand in her adolescent years, later confessing she had been tasked with keeping an eye on some of the light-fingered employees suspected of skimming proceeds. She even umpired youth softball games, crutches and all.

Later the family moved to Greenville, Ohio, where Louis began a popcorn business that boomed during World War II.

He did so well that Kay and her sister, Helen, were able to go off to college in New York — Kay to Barnard, Helen to Skidmore.

Kay joined the archery team at Barnard, earning a varsity letter. She later enrolled in law school at Boston University, the lone woman in her class, and transferred to Columbia University, where she graduated from the School of International and Public Affairs. There she met fellow student Robert G. Constant.

Robert Constant had been a first lieutenant serving on battlefront campaigns along the Rhine in World War II.

He and Kay married and set up house in Glen Head, had son Robert and daughter Carin.

Kay did volunteer work in the North Shore School District and, as president of the coordinating council of the PTA, even persuaded former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to make an appearance at a fundraiser. Kay later recruited the Harlem Globetrotters to do the same.

When her husband died in 1968 at age 47, Kay become a single mother with a house to run.

"Most importantly," her son said, "she didn't let life get in the way."

She got a job with the Department of Parks, Recreation & Museums in Nassau County, becoming director of volunteer services. Eventually, she trained thousands of volunteers, working with them at varied sites, including the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City and Falaise, the historic home of Capt. Harry F. Guggenheim and wife, Alicia Patterson, who founded Newsday in 1940.

It was Kay Constant who persuaded famed aviation pioneer Charles A. Lindbergh to appear at a reception for the opening of Falaise as a Nassau County museum in May 1973. Lindbergh, who had been a frequent guest at Falaise,  where he had written his bestseller "We" months after his historic 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight,  even made a rare, though brief, spontaneous speech to guests.

A Newsday article later chronicled Kay's life, describing how she regularly cut "an acre of grass" with a power mower at her Glen Head home; how she tirelessly recruited volunteers for Nassau County park and museum sites, worked endless hours as sole caretaker of her kids. "Who else is going to do it?" she said then.

Though she stood just 5 feet tall — "Maybe, 5-1 on a good day," her son said — Kay Constant was relentless in her pursuit of what her son called "the fair and equal treatment of all people."  He recalled how, as a child on shopping trips with his mother, people would give impolite stares, one shopper even telling her children: "Don't go near that woman, you might get that.

Through it all, Kay Constant battled on, determined not be viewed as disabled.

"She was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat," her son said, explaining how his mother for years volunteered at Glen Cove Community Hospital and ran a scholarship fund that focused on higher education and vocational training for those going into trades.

"FDR was her hero," he said. "She was a believer in fair treatment and her life was filled with selfless acts to make the community better, people from all walks of life . . . She refused to give up despite what she was faced with always, but it was never me, me, me . . . I don't know too many people like that."

Kay Constant's sister Helen M. Stock of Franklin, Tennessee, died in January. She is survived by her son, Robert, his wife Karen, and their children, Ariana, Max and Vanessa; and by her daughter Carin Constant of East Hampton. 

Interment was in a private ceremony at Pinelawn National Cemetery.

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