Wendy Kates

Wendy Kates

29 April 1925
London, United Kingdom
10 October 2012
London, United Kingdom
Words by
Nick Kates Son

It is my privilege, on behalf of Hilary, Richard and Polly, Catherine, Jonathan and Jade and Alan and Sally to say a few words about Wendy Kates, the remarkable woman who was taken from us yesterday.

Woody Allen once stated that they say such wonderful things about people at funerals his only regret was that he would miss his by just a couple of days. Wendy would not have shared that sentiment. In everything she did, she never sought the limelight and was never comfortable being the centre of attention. Which is strange for a woman who was a major public figure, a media personality and whose face for a few weeks one summer in the 1970’s even adorned London buses with advertisements for her agony column in The Sun, giving a whole new meaning to looking like the back of a bus.

she was truly a visionary

The roles trip easily off the tongue – wife, mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, sister-in law, aunt, doctor, counsellor, friend, journalist, broadcaster, personality, teacher, visionary, pioneer, Agony Aunt, but the words alone cannot do justice to the passion, the creativity the caring and the commitment she brought to each and every one of these. But when we think of Wendy, two immediate thoughts come to mind.

The first is that she was always looking for ways to help others, without expecting anything in return. This was a value she learned from her parents, shared with her brother and passed on to all her children. The words of Stephen Grellet were the motto by which Wendy lived her life: “I shall pass through this world but once! Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again”. And is there anyone in this room who has not been touched directly by her kindness, her advice, her assistance, her wisdom or her support.

And this is swiftly followed by a second thought – that she was truly a visionary, creative and resourceful, and determined to better the lives of those who were disadvantaged, whose ideas were years ahead of their time. When she saw something that was wrong she wanted to make it right. Not to make a statement, just because it was wrong. Not to change the world, but to change the lives of those people she could help. Hilary and I still remember as kids helping to pack two hundred carrier bags with gifts for seniors from their practice every Christmas, and all five of us went door to door in the Pre-Blue Peter days hoping to collect enough silver paper to purchase a guide dog (only 250 sacks!).

Wendy was born in London near Brent Cross in April 1925. Her father was a Councillor, Alderman and Mayor in Holborn, modelling for Wendy the idea – and the ideal – of public service, and giving something back, which would become perhaps the central tenet of her life.

Wendy decided early on that she wanted to be a doctor

Her brother Alan, was four years younger, and while he still remembers the perhaps apocryphal (Wendy used the phrase “made up”) story about the croquet ball he alleges she threw at him when she was small, Wendy frequently regaled us with Uncle Alan stories as we were growing up which have become part of our family’s folklore, transmuted into Uncle Richard stories for our children, and which one day Catherine will be telling us Uncle Jon stories.

But Alan and Wendy had a fantastically close and rich relationship, and he and Sally have been such an amazing source of support and assistance for Wendy over the years, in times that were happy and sad, something for which we cannot say thank you enough.

Wendy decided early on that she wanted to be a doctor, despite a strict quota system whereby only three of London’s twelve medical schools accepted any women at all. She was one of three women offered a place at University College Hospital and qualified in January 1949. After her house jobs, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to do some research at the Chicago Obstetric Hospital and was filling in time doing locums until her ship left. One of these was at Southend Hospital for two weeks in the summer of 1950, where she met a young surgeon called Alex Katz, also doing a locum there.

he asked Wendy to marry him just one week after meeting her

Unbelievably, as I think he was one of the least impulsive and most cautious people you could ever meet, he made probably the most reckless, and certainly the best decision of his life when he asked Wendy to marry him just one week after meeting her. She of course said yes and seven months later they were married. And the strength she got from Alex and gave back in return, and their mutual support and devotion endured for the next thirty one years. He was her partner, her equal, her best friend and her biggest fan and booster, providing encouragement and guidance, support and consolation He was also her archivist, keeping scrapbooks of her writings and recording every radio broadcast.

Alex and Wendy took over a large general practice together in Tottenham, but Wendy soon realised that she needed further training to know how to cope with the numerous patients who were coming to see her with physical symptoms such as sore throat, indigestion or headaches, but were actually suffering from anxiety or depression which was causing their symptoms. Whilst commonplace today, these ideas were groundbreaking fifty years ago, and led her to train as a Marriage Guidance Counsellor.

In 1955 Wendy and Alex designed and built England’s second ever group general practice, which was soon to become the first practice in the UK to employ a marriage guidance counsellor, one of so many firsts with which Wendy was to be involved.

Dr. Kates took a back seat to Mrs. Kates….family always came first

But then in Wendy’s own words, Dr. Kates took a back seat to Mrs. Kates – the wife and mother – as she and Alex had five children in seven years, and her family became the central focus of her life, and for the rest of her days. And yet she was always able to balance these two roles, and meet the expectations of each, readily acknowledging that she could not have done this without the unconditional support and assistance of our father.

So while we knew we also had to share Wendy with the many causes and organisations with which she was involved, family always came first and we have so many happy memories (and pictures); of picnics when, like Mary Poppins, Wendy would cause all kinds of marvellous things to emerge from the boot of the car; of family holidays including a week spent with Wendy driving the five of us around Ireland in the pouring rain in a Rover 60; of the formal invitations we received to come to their anniversary parties in our sitting room, and our politely handwritten thank you note;, and of the prodigious quantities of food that would magically appear any time we invited a friend over. And she still had time each day to complete the Times crossword, and later a Soduku – Wendy loved doing puzzles and quizzes, test us on our homework, do some gardening take the dogs (we always had two dogs) for a run, usually behind the car, and to cook. In fact Wendy always said her epitaph should read “she made good soup”, although a more fitting memorial would be she made a difference.

But it wasn’t just her own family for whom Wendy was such a tower of strength. She had married into a large extended family, and was always available to assist in any way she could, and did in so different many ways.

Meanwhile her marriage guidance counselling and her work with the Association of Jewish Youth led her into the area of sex education, and the emergence of Dr. Greengross, the media celebrity. Publication followed publication… ‘Sex in Marriage’ for Marriage Guidance, to be followed by ‘Sex in the Middle Years” which providing her with a certain notoriety for suggesting publicly that a woman might be able to enjoy sex in marriage after the age of forty. “Entitled to love” about the Sexual and psychological problems of the disabled, “Sex and the handicapped child”, “Sex in early marriage”, “Helping with sex problems”. ….. do you begin to see a common thread here – I suppose she could be considered to be the EL James of the 1960s. But re-reading these books forty years after they were published, and they were produced at a time when hardly anyone was talking about these subjects, let alone writing about them, their advice is extraordinarily fresh, current and relevant to today’s much less inhibited discussions about sexuality. And her last two books were amongst her most influential – Jewish and Homosexual, which Tony referred to, and Living, Loving and Aging written twenty years ago with her sister-in-law Sally.

the emergence of Dr. Greengross, the media celebrity

She also became more involved with a host of community organisations. She was a founder member and later chair of SPOD, at that time the initials stood for Sexual Problems of the Disabled, a member of the Warnock Committee on Fertilisation and Embryology, a patron of Action on Elder Abuse, a founder of the Residential Care Consortium and for twenty five years a Trustee of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, where her belief in the need to support autonomy and treat people with disabilities with respect and dignity drove her work, and the leadership she provided, particularly in residential care, where again her ideas which we take for granted today were not broadly accepted thirty years ago.

Her media work also expanded with regular newspaper and magazine articles and TV and Radio appearances. And in the 1970s she became the regular member of the innovative and influential Radio 4 counselling programme ‘If You Think You’ve Got Problems’ which ran every Sunday evening at 6.15 for eight years and was referred to as “the first attempt to put Britain on the therapists couch”.

She was also a Programme Advisor to the TV soap opera ‘Crossroads ‘ putting one of the lead characters into a wheelchair, thereby joined her son Richard in being referenced in the Internet Movie Data Base, and became the first Agony Aunt for the recently re-launched Sun Newspaper, writing a weekly column ‘Heart to Heart with Doctor Wendy,’ During these years she was one of the best known women in Britain and widely respected for her opinions and the sensitive, knowledgeable and courageous ways she expressed them.

I’ll be loving you always, not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year but always

The next few years were to be a time of great happiness, mixed health but also enormous sadness. Happiness as first Trevor and then Jan and I got married and Wendy became a wonderful and caring grandmother to Jon, Cat and Jade. And how much pride she took in all their achievements.

Ill health because of a life threatening episode of Stevens – Johnson’s syndrome, which caused enduring health problems that, like the other setbacks she encountered, she just took in her stride and never complained about despite the obvious discomfort we knew she must be in, as she found solutions to the problems she faced.

But sadness because of the sudden death of Alex, and the gap this left in her life after thirty one years of such a happy and supportive marriage. Their commitment to and support for each other made them the strongest of couples. The song they chose to lead off the dancing at their wedding – their song – was “Always” by Irving Berlin whose lyrics sum. up their relationship so beautifully “I’ll be loving you always, not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year but always.”

Following Alex’s death, Wendy became more involved in the Reform Movement and in Alyth, as you have heard from Tony Bayfield, and this became a source of enormous satisfaction for her. We particularly remember how proud she was to finally celebrate her BatMitzvah at the age of seventy eight. I can also remember her being a little bemused shortly before her eightieth birthday when she was assigned to guard duty at Alyth on Rosh Hashanah, and trying to decide which of her many walking sticks she should take with her to protect the congregation.

But tragedy was to touch our family again in 1997, with the death of her beloved son and our wonderful brother Trevor, and gradually Wendy’s activities began to focus more on her family and her grandchildren.

Then came the final chapter as Wendy courageously struggled with the terrible illness that would have such a devastating effect on that most precious of assets – her mind. And the periods of recovery, although more fleeting and further apart were unexpected gifts when Wendy came back to us, something for which we will always be grateful – and her final gift to us was to enable the family to care for her in her final days together, something that would have been as important to her as it was to us.

she was always looking for ways to help others, without expecting anything in return

Over her life there have been so many people who have benefited from her advice and support, her warmth and her understanding, her energy and her sense of humour, which was witty but never hurtful.

She was not a saint, and like everyone had her flaws and foibles – a belief that a house can never have too many freezers, a conviction that yellow lines meant “park here” and perhaps once she actually did throw a croquet ball at her brother. But when we think of Wendy, we remember someone who would always go out of her way to help another, a pioneer who advocated for all individuals to be treated with respect and dignity, whatever their age, sexual orientation, physical wellbeing or place of abode, a visionary who helped change the way our community and maybe even our country viewed sexuality, disabilities and ageing, and a loving woman whose family was the most important thing in her life and whose marriage provided her with the security and confidence to take all the professional risks she did.

So thank you Wendy….for everything you gave us, you taught us and you showed us, and you know we’ll be loving you…… “Always”

Words by
Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield CBE

Wendy’s illness was cruel in the extreme. Yet, almost throughout, she retained her lucidity and insight – it was as if she was reporting what was happening to her from outside of herself. In her final coma, I wanted to ask her why she was hanging on for so long and, without doubt, she would have been able to tell me. She was always clear-sighted, incisive and determined; witty, compassionate and modest to the point of self-deprecation. She was vivid, distinctive and one of the most important influences on my life. Thankfully, I told her that quite a few times during the last years. I did so love her.

one of the most influential figures in the post-war British Reform Movement

I can’t remember where I’d come from, only that I got off the train at a London terminus and there, on the platform, was a large placard inviting me to read ‘Dr Wendy in The Sun’. I was so proud – my teacher. She was The Sun’s agony aunt for quite some time in pre-Murdoch days and only gave up the role when they demanded more titillation at the expense of sound advice. She belonged to a trio of agony aunts along with Marjorie Proops, who was older and Claire Rayner, who was younger. All were Jewish but only Wendy was a committed, practicing Jew and that is what I am going to focus on.

For Nicholas (and Jan), Polly, Hilary, Richard and, of course, Trevor; for Catherine, Jonathan and Jade; for Alan and Sally; and for the rest of the family- she was mother, grandmother, sister, sister-in-law and aunt and also one of the great social pioneers of her generation. In a few moments Nicholas will talk about how, remarkably, she managed to combine those roles. My privilege is to talk about Wendy, as one of the most influential figures in the post-war British Reform Movement.

Our relationship began when the Leo Baeck College – ever and remarkably pioneering – introduced counselling and pastoral psychology to the training of rabbis, as I recall, in 1969. Wendy, along with the late Irene Bloomfield, set about the task of trying to convince reluctant rabbinic students that they could never carry out their pastoral role successfully without being in touch with themselves and the feelings which govern their behaviour. As always, she was particularly interested in sex – at least that’s how I remember it – and I definitely remember the sex film she showed us in which we saw a heterosexual couple, a lesbian couple and a gay couple making love.

one of the great social pioneers of her generation

A decade later the Reform Movement published ‘Jewish and Homosexual’ in which Wendy clearly but compassionately told the Movement that past Jewish attitudes were wrong, that gays and lesbians have an unequivocal right to an equal place within the community and that right includes overt acceptance of their sexuality. It was all of a piece with her advocacy for the sexual rights of the elderly and disabled. It was pioneering in itself but, in the context of the Jewish community, utterly remarkable. It set the seal on a process already under way, both at the Leo Baeck College and in the Progressive Jewish communities. I am proud to have been asked to write the introduction to ‘Jewish and Homosexual’ but I am even more proud that the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain asked Wendy to write the booklet and published it. She found a Jewish home in the Reform Movement because, at its best, it embraced change and Wendy was, in so many areas of social concern, a pioneer of change and an agent for change.

When I graduated from the Leo Baeck College in 1972 and moved down to Surrey, I applied to become a counsellor for the National Marriage Guidance Council (now Relate). Wendy was one of my referees and I remember the extreme brevity of my interview. “We see that you have given Wendy Greengross [she was their chief medical advisor] as your referee, what can we say? How could we possibly argue?” Mr Bayfield counselled in Staines for a decade and did the advanced sexual counselling course with Janet Cohen from Edgware Reform.

the important thing is that death doesn’t destroy the living and that they are not left with too many regrets and too many things that were left unsaid

When I returned to the North West London ghetto in 1983, Alex had already, suddenly and tragically, died. Wendy was devastated but it did not stop her becoming a founder member of the Community Outreach Team, set up to provide top quality, professional support for the caring work of the Movement and their Synagogues. That so many members of that Team are here today tells you not just of the respect but of the love she inspired in people who shared her values. From the establishment of synagogue caring structures to outreach to couples in mixed-faith relationships, Wendy gave of herself unstintingly and left an indelible, clear and compassionate mark.

I established a quarterly journal for the Progressive Movements called MANNA – a poor pun on the Manor House (later The Sternberg Centre) and the miraculous food in the wilderness. Wendy was a member of the founding Editorial Board and remained a member until the last issue was published twenty eight years later. She, more than anyone else, ensured that MANNA did not disappear up a fundament of communal politics and self-regard but addressed those points at which the realities of human life in a changing world demand change in attitudes and policy. She also contributed well over a dozen articles – manna for those of us in today’s wilderness of callous economics – on Social and Personal Columns; Kosher Butchers; Being the Chair of a Jewish Voluntary Organisation; Death; Motherhood; Jewish Fatherhood; Test Tube Babies; Volunteering; Ageing; Community Outreach and Radio Interviews; The Role of the Synagogue with Regard to the Elderly; Growing Old Disgracefully and Moving to the Last Stage of Life.

Clear-sighted, compassionate, witty and a woman of faith

Back in 1986 she challenged the tendency to pretend about impending death. “I’ve seen many people coping tranquilly with their own impending death. They’ve not been super-human, but ordinary people who have found comfort in being able to bring their lives to a close, and live out the last of their days and months being able to talk to those they love about how life would be without them. It may sound extraordinary and perhaps those people are unusual in having faith in themselves and the people around them, or a strong, religious faith…. I believe that faith is a risk worth taking. Otherwise you might get left with deathbed instructions, like the old man who, on dying, wanted his wife to promise him that she would drive to the cemetery in the same car as his sister whom she detested. Reluctantly, she agreed. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘I’ll do it, but it will completely spoil my day.’ “Dying”, ended Wendy, “nearly always spoils the day; the important thing is that death doesn’t destroy the living and that they are not left with too many regrets and too many things that were left unsaid.”

Clear-sighted, compassionate, witty and a woman of faith. Faith in synagogues like Alyth Gardens as places of community; faith in her fellow human beings, in their worth and in their rights; and faith that somehow she would someday be reunited with her beloved Alex and, as the Jewish tradition has it, be bound up, with him, in the bundle of life. May that be God’s will. Amen.