Kay Barksdale inhabits two worlds. They don’t cross over much, but in each she is the same, a celebrity; literally a celebrated person.
“She is truly a gem,” observes Mona Morrow, community affairs director for Channel 9.
On weekdays, Barksdale is the first face visitors see at the station. Her title is receptionist, but as can be the case with that title when held by a dedicated person, the job involves many more disciplines.
In Barksdale’s case, having been at channel’s front desk for going on 35 years — thus outlasting five general managers — she also serves as the station’s historian, its knowledgeable and enthusiastic greeter of employees and visitors, well-connected information source and empathetic friend and counselor to her co-workers.
“She truly views the 160 people who work at the station as part of her family,” notes Bill Fee, WCPO’s current general manager. “Kay is a humanizing force within the station,” a trait particularly treasured in this increasingly automated and economically troubled world.
So that’s how Kay Barksdale fills her week.
Occasionally, she lets her other world seep in and brighten the workday of her news station colleagues by getting on the intercom and singing a surprise Happy Birthday in their honor. But, unlike the warbling heard in other workplaces on such occasions, Barksdale’s rendition thankfully sounds, well, good. In fact, professional.
Which is why she’s known in a larger circle as Cincinnati’s “gospel jewel.”
 In 2006, she was nominated for inclusion in the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Detroit. The singer was named Female Vocalist of the Year at the Gospel Academy Awards in 1987 at the Taft Auditorium. She has performed for Cincinnati City Council up to First Ladies and U.S. Presidents.
Her list of appearances and achievements goes on, but despite an early introduction to it (“My grandmother put me up on the pulpit when I was 5 to sing Jesus Loves Me”), the gospel world may not have laid such claim to her, were it not for a spiritual turning point after an event that made history six miles from Cincinnati on May 28, 1977.
“I didn’t feel like going to perform that night,” at the Beverly Hills Supper Club, Barksdale recalls. She even had a premonition “that we should not go,” but she and her choir, The Greater Cincinnati Choral Union, went for a get-together.
At the time, Barksdale was a prominent jazz singer in Cincinnati, notes Henry Benefield, a friend and fellow performer in town who has sung backing vocals for Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle and Bootsy Collins. “When she sang secular music, it was on the same level as Billie Holliday or Sarah Vaughan,” adds friend Janice C. Thompson, a singer for the Kenny Smith Peace and Serenity group.
She had been singing in nightclubs in New York, Cincinnati and Newport among other cities, but that facet of her performing career was ultimately extinguished by the flames that engulfed the Beverly Hills Supper Club that night.
The tragedy, the third-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, took the lives of 165 people, but not Kay Barksdale’s, even though she was upstairs when the fire broke out. She credits divine intervention with her survival.
“There was a man who showed me how to breathe and cough,” and the way to get out, Barksdale remembers. She noticed that this man was not coughing himself. In retelling her story to investigators, her description of this man (white-haired, beautiful blue suit) could not match that of any employee or patron known to be at the club that night. “I got the message from the Lord, ‘I came to you in the form of a man,’ who showed you the way out”
Her life saved, Kay did lose something else from the fire; her voice. “The Lord changed my life totally during that time. I had lost my voice for three months and was not able to speak above a whisper. I prayed and asked God, and vowed, if he restored my voice I would never sing secular music again.” He did, Barksdale says, and she has kept her vow, even when it brought her and the great Lionel Hampton to a creative impasse. Hampton was a guest at a local forum for President George H. W. Bush. At Alex’s on Reading Road, Hampton’s band performed and planned to play for Barksdale.
But, “when I asked him to play (a gospel tune), he told me I don’t do gospel and he said ‘sing a jazz number” and I told him I don’t do jazz,” Barksdale says. So she proceeded to sing A capella.
“He started playing gospel behind me,” Barksdale says. Afterward, “I said to him ‘ I thought you said you didn’t play gospel — you did a good job, and he said ‘I would play behind you any day.’”