Windham has lost its great historian

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Kathleen Whirlwind-Soldier was born and raised in Windham. After the adventures of her 20s and 30s were over (she hung out with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez back in the ’60s, for goodness sake), she came back to Windham, where she stayed until her death last week.

In the early 2000s, I worked with Kay when I was the reporter and, later, editor for The Suburban News in Windham. She served as editor of the Suburban in the 1990s, and she did a great job building the readership with her flowing writing style. Although Kay was no longer the editor when I arrived in 2001, everyone in town thought she was. Some still might.

Through the years, Kay’s role with Windham’s weekly paper changed. After handing over the editing and reporting reins to Dawn Fortune in the late 1990s, Kay focused on creating ads. She worked with the salesmen to craft the ads, a job she embraced with great skill and precision.

When Current Publishing bought the Suburban in 2003 and turned it into the Lakes Region Weekly, Publisher Lee Hews always made sure we had a position for Kay. While her role with advertising faded, Kay stayed busy writing the Inside Windham column, managing the obituaries, writing the history column, and writing Seniors Etc., which focused on senior citizens.

Kay’s stuff was easy to read and interesting for even a non-Windhamite. And she never missed a deadline, which I particularly appreciated as her editor for a dozen years.

While my interactions with Kay were mostly by phone and email after 2003, my best memories of her are from working with her in the Suburban’s office in North Windham. Though she wasn’t my boss, Kay was someone I could ask questions of, since she had walked in my shoes. She was a mentor when I really needed one.

Kay never pulled punches. For example, when the sales staff at the old Suburban was burying her with special advertising sections, Kay said, “Well, they’re not all that special if you do one every week, right?” I’ll never forget that.

She was upfront and honest. And because she could do that – with anyone, anywhere – she demanded respect. I respected her and everyone I knew did, too – the publishers, coworkers, officials, readers. Everyone.

Kay’s presence was felt even when she wasn’t around. I remember being late for an interview once. When I arrived, the subject of the interview said, “You’re late. Kay would never have been late.”

Kay knew her stuff, too. She knew Windham. She was known as Windham’s town historian. I learned a lot from her and, as editor, I’d refer reporters to Kay for background on historical stories. Kay never disappointed. She knew about everything and everyone.

Kay had endless knowledge about the major families in town – Jordan, Sawyer, Hawkes, Mayberry, Manchester, to name a few. She was a walking, talking Windham encyclopedia.

Kay spent many Saturdays at the Windham Historical Society headquarters. I always thought she enjoyed Windham history because it reminded her of her childhood, which from her stories and writings sounded wonderful, family-filled and adventurous.

No homebody, she spread her wings after high school by moving to Portland, then Boston and New York City (where she met the aforementioned folk music phenoms), and then to the Rosebud Indian Reservation, where she married and changed her surname from Kelley to the impressive Whirlwind-Soldier. I always loved her last name. She was proud of it. She eventually came back to Windham, however, since that was always her home. Her family (she was the oldest of several siblings who still live locally) was glad to have her back from her travels.

Kay didn’t have the easiest of lives. She went to the local food pantry often, but she didn’t let it get her down or make her jealous of others who had more. She was tough, maybe a little stubborn, and she was someone who buckled down when work had to be done. She did it in style. A little sign sat on her desk at the Suburban: “I laugh at deadlines.” That’s classic Kay.

She may have been the town’s historian, but she was always interested in how Windham was evolving. The Old Windham/New Windham population shift intrigued her, as did each new subdivision or restaurant proposal. She compiled Planning Board minutes for many years.

Kay saw about 80 years of change come to her hometown. When she was a kid, as she often said, South Windham was the downtown and North Windham was mostly fields. I’m sorry that death has robbed her of the chance to continue those studies and share her discoveries with us.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.