SCHENECTADY A fixture at every outdoor music event and nearly every Schenectady City Council meeting has died.
Barbara Katz, 76, passed away Sunday at her apartment. She died just four days short of her 77th birthday.
To those who knew her well, her death came as a shock. The disabled woman, who lived a “fiercely independent” life, was known as the Dancing Lady. She was usually the first one to step into the circle when the music started, and would dance unselfconsciously for as long as the music lasted.
She loved that more than almost anything else, except perhaps her artwork. Her simple drawings, usually made with crayon, have been displayed throughout the area — partly because she gifted them to everyone she knew.
Katz was developmentally disabled, but she would not accept much help. She lived alone, eventually in a Municipal Housing Authority apartment, and managed her own money as well as she could, though that sometimes was too much for her.
In 2010, her many friends in the downtown business district organized a benefit on her behalf to get her out of a financial hole. She delightedly pitched in, passing fliers around the city she loved.
She relied on her own feet and buses to get everywhere, but that didn’t stop her from applying for jobs in Glenville and visiting friends for lunch in Albany.
“She was fiercely independent,” said City Court Judge Mark Blanchfield, who met her after he was elected to the council in 2001.
At council meetings, she was gentle when other residents shouted from the floor. She greeted government officials — from Congress members to city department heads — with artwork rather than complaints.
When she stood up to speak, her voice was sometimes difficult to understand, but she told the council earnestly about how difficult it was to travel on buses and cross streets as a disabled woman. She asked them to improve pedestrian safety.
On one occasion, another resident criticized her for her comments, saying that she wasn’t too disabled to cross a street. As his vitriol grew worse, she slunk out of the room — and the council turned off his microphone, cut the cameras and walked out.
Blanchfield hurried to Katz, trying to reassure her.
The angry resident was startled to find such support for someone he thought of as simply an old woman with slurred speech. As even the public began to shout him down, he changed his tune, and eventually concluded his remarks by saying that the council should take Katz seriously.
Blanchfield said he was always impressed by how independent Katz was, despite her disabilities.
“She used to come up to my [law] office in Albany,” he said. “She would say, ‘You and I should get together,’ which was code for ‘You should take me out to lunch.’ ”
On the appointed day, she would invariably show up 45 minutes early, rather than risk being late. After lunch, he would offer to drive her home if she could wait for him to finish work. But each time, she insisted on taking the bus.
“She would say, ‘No, I’ve got things to do. People to see,’ ” he said. “She was a very special person to me.”
People’s faces would light up when she handed them a picture. Her presence drew dancers out of the crowd to start every music festival.
“She brought out the good in a lot of people,” Blanchfield said. “She will be missed.”
Katz did not leave any instructions for reaching her family members, but Blanchfield was able to track down her nephew and sister, who will be making funeral arrangements.