She was first invited to leave school when she was seven years old. It was a very hot day and little Adelaide and her best friend Pitcher decided they had the perfect plan to cool off.
They sneaked away to the best source of water they could think of, shucked their shoes and socks and slipped their feet into the cool running water. And when the water began to settle, they flushed again, and again, until they were discovered, plucked unceremoniously from each side of the toilet, and marched dripping to the principal’s office where they were picked up by their mortified parents.
While Adelaide Daniels Key claims to be the black sheep among the four girls in her family, I’d say this is one woman who has never been a sheep of any kind. Though she did an excellent job, apparently, of keeping her 18 months older sister in a near constant state of mortification!
“I’ve had fun all my life. I was kicked out of school, suspended more than once. It’s all right. I try not to take life so seriously—I get my kicks out of watching people who do.”
And yet she is quite serious about her commitment to her community. “We are all our brother’s keeper, whether we want to be or not. If you live in a community, you have an obligation to make that community the best possible place to be.”
“This is not about money,” she continues, “it is about what is between the ears! Commitment to community can be about being a brownie leader or a scoutmaster, a volunteer for a non-profit or picking up litter.”
While everyone, regardless of income, she feels, has a duty to community, her beloved grandfather Josephus Daniels instilled the concept of noblesse oblige (those who have, have an obligation to those who have not) at an early age. Her grandfather and her father Jonathan Daniels—both Big D Democrats, were key players American history.
Josephus Daniels, in 1894 at the age of 19, bought the Raleigh News and Observer, building it into the first newspaper in the world to have more subscribers than the population of the city in which it was based. His outspokenness also prompted some to call it the “Nuisance and Disturber”. “Dullness”, he said, “is the only crime for which an editor ought to be hung.”
The reader is advised to put this article down right now and go Google “Josephus Daniels” and read about him from his birth in 1862 while the Civil War was raging until his death in 1948, how he became Secretary of the Navy, then appointed the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his Assistant Secretary of the Navy whom he later endorsed and supported for president. And so much more…
“A man is as old as his arteries and his interests. If he permits his economic, religious, or social arteries to harden, or loses interest in whatever concerns mankind . . . he will need only six feet of earth.”— Josephus Daniels
[ Legend has it that when he eliminated beer and wine on board naval ships, the sailors drank coffee instead—and thus began the term “a cup of Joe”. ]
Beyond his public persona, Adelaide knew him (and her grandmother) as gentle, loving, and strong. Though she was only 12 when he died, “All my life I’ve felt he was right here” as she pats her shoulder.
“I sort of know who I am”, she begins. “I used to be Jonathan Daniels’ daughter and Josephus Daniels’ granddaughter. Then I was my husband’s wife and my children’s mother. I was divorced almost 20 years ago from a 30 year marriage—I expect my husband thought me the good little Maxwell-housewife. Over the last 20 years I have evolved to the person I am today. (I’d not let her out of the closet often!)”
“Everyone thinks that I am an extrovert. Really I am an introvert, trained to be an extrovert as a child.”
Adelaide Key is a woman who is passionate about children, particularly about abuse to children in any form. “Verbal abuse is in some ways more damaging than physical abuse. It is the insidious nature of verbal abuse that sneaks inside of you and you begin to feel that’s who you really are.”
Among the many projects she has supported are Asheville’s after school program Project STEAM (Success Through Education And Motivation) which has been so successful it is now expanding; the Lewis Rathbun Wellness Center, created as a place for individuals and families to stay while they are receiving care in Buncombe County Hospitals; the endowment of a professorship in Special Education at WCU; the Key Learning Center at Carolina Day; Mountain Area Hospice; and the Community Resource Network. If something major is afoot for the benefit of the community in Western North Carolina, Adelaide Key is likely in the thick of it.
“I have so many passions! I tend to get up on soap boxes and rant and rave. Like uninsured people—that’s just not right. Injustice just fries me.”
She pulls out the time line of her life, pages and pages torn from a legal pad, with bold black writing chronicling her ‘life and times’. “I have four children, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild—who is going to set the world straight. Life is funny, you know. Going through all my stuff, I was thinking—a child assumes all children have the same experience. At eight, I was having dinner at the White House and playing charades with the Roosevelts. (Her father was Press Secretary to Roosevelt and at his death stayed for some time to help with the transition to Truman). But they were just like I was—we are all just skin and bones like everyone else. “
“It’s hard to impress me. I can see phonies from 50 yards off.” Of George Bush (she said somewhat later in our conversation, but it does seem to fit here): “I certainly don’t believe Mr. Bush. If he said it was raining outside, I’d have to go outside to check. I just don’t trust him not to put this country in jeopardy.”
Adelaide Key’s love of country and community is evident in everything she does. She has received many awards for her work, but the one she values most, she explained, is the Razor Walker award, given her by Watson School of Education, UNC-Wilmington, in 1998. Robert E. Tyndall, dean of the Watson School of Education:
The Razor Walker Award is one way to show our appreciation to distinguished graduates as well as celebrate the university’s 50th anniversary. These recipients have taken personal or professional risks and have put forth extraordinary efforts to realize a vision that would improve their communities. They have walked the ‘razor’s edge’ where it is not always safe and predictable. Each believes in a dream greater than himself or herself that could change the lives of children.”
Asked in particular about the women of Western North Carolina, she says: “I’ve been right proud of the women of Western North Carolina. I think of myself as a Western North Carolina woman; I’ve lived here since 1964. I was 28 years old when we moved here.”
“The good ‘ole boys club is alive and well, but the Western North Carolina woman is learning to stand up to it. She has her own network. It may not be on the golf course, but she can get things done as well.”
“Life is so interesting, ” she muses. Everybody’s life—I don’t care where you come from, rich or poor—is full of tragedy, joy. It’s all in how you look at it. If you look at something hard enough, you can find the bad in it. I choose to see life as a wonderful roller coaster. I can look back and die laughing at things that seemed awful then.”
She picks up the pile of yellow papers again on which she has set down the milestones of her life.
“I’m an avid country music person because it tells it like it is. I think I might call this book Life is a Dance. “Life is a dance, you learn as you go. Sometimes you lead, and sometimes you follow.” (John Montgomery)
First published in WNC WOMAN March 2004