Elizabeth Donnell Kay (1894-1987) was the only child of James J. Donnell and Ann Leeds Warden. Her father emigrated from Northern Ireland with his parents in 1850 and eventually became a leader in the business and financial world of Pennsylvania. Her mother was from a prominent Philadelphia family. As a young woman, Elizabeth attended the Master’s School at Dobbs Ferry, New York. In 1915, Elizabeth Donnell married Alfred G. Kay, a stockbroker from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Kays moved to Chester, New Jersey in the 1920’s where they spent their springs, summers and falls. The couple wintered in Florida where they were involved in many community activities and worthwhile causes, which included the founding of the Palm Beach Day School and St. Mary’s Hospital. The Kay’s also presided over the Palm Beach Civic Association and Everglades Club, and led the rescue of Pine Ridge Hospital, the area’s only health care facility for African Americans.
Elizabeth Kay’s greatest fascination lay in the flora and fauna of the world around her, an interest which deepened to a dedication encompassing conservation, ecology and education in natural science. Accordingly, in the early 1960’s, Mrs. Kay donated the architectural plans for the Pine Jog Environmental Science Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. In the mid-1960s these same plans were used as a model for Morris County’s Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center in Chatham, New Jersey.
Mrs. Kay was a woman with exceptionally broad interests and diverse abilities varying from nursing to literature. She was instrumental in establishing the Seeing Eye Center in Morristown, New Jersey, and remained involved through raising many of the dogs. Mrs. Kay was the initial founder of an experimental arboretum located south of Palm Beach which imported and tested many tropical trees and flowering shrubs to determine if they were suitable for use in South Florida. She was past president of the Garden Club of America and gifted writer who penned numerous horticultural articles. Mr. and Mrs. Kay ghostwrote an autobiography of David Fairchild entitled; “The World Was My Garden.” Additionally, the couple edited “The Plant World in Florida”; a book based on the notes of Dr. Henry Nehrling.
The Kay’s bequeathed their 233-acre “Hidden River Farm” in Chester, New Jersey, to the Morris County Park Commission who, in 1994, dedicated the property as the Elizabeth D. Kay Environmental Education Center. This peaceful estate encompasses many diverse habitats including field, deciduous forests and a magnificent hemlock gorge on the Black River. The area was donated to the people of Morris County as a new environmental center where “each day would bring a new wonder and challenge to learn.”
Chester Historical Society PO Box 376 ~ Chester, NJ07930