A Local Life: Cozy Baker, 86; Outlook of kaleidoscope collector was transformed by beauty

Cozy Baker amassed more than 1,000 models in her collection.
Cozy Baker amassed more than 1,000 models in her collection.
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 5:07 PM

In 1981, Cozy Baker's youngest son, Randall, was killed by a drunk driver when he was 23.

To cope with the loss, she took up writing as an outlet for her anguish. Her reminiscences were collected in a book published a year later, "Love Beyond Life: Six Enlightening Ways to Triumph Over Tragedy."

While on tour promoting her work, Mrs. Baker stopped in a rustic craft shop in Nashville and stumbled across a clunky, but cute, handmade kaleidoscope.

On a lark, she bought the tubular optic and aimed it out the airplane window throughout her flight home to Maryland.

As Mrs. Baker watched the earth below her melt away in a swirl of crystallized colors, she found the pain of her son's loss was relieved with every twist of the kaleidoscope.

"I wasn't a career person," she told The Washington Post in 1989. "I was a volunteer and a mother. Then suddenly I found scopes."

Before Mrs. Baker died on Oct. 19 at age 86 of ovarian cancer, her private collection included more than 1,000 models - believed to be the world's largest.

The kaleidoscope was invented by Scottish scientist and mathematician Sir David Brewster in 1816. He derived the name from the Greek terms kalos meaning "beautiful," eidos, for "form," and skopos, meaning "to look at."

Mrs. Baker, who founded the Montgomery County-based Brewster Society for kaleidoscope enthusiasts in 1986, kept an 1817 model designed by Brewster on a tripod in her home.

Her collection, which at one point consumed10 rooms of her Boyds residence, included kaleidoscopes made of shark skin and alabaster and another carved from an elephant's tusk.

She had scopes in the shapes of trains, castles, airplanes and the Chrysler building. She had a "kaleidopool" in her backyard with fiber-optic underwater lights, and a "kaleidoquarium" fish tank - though she did not stock it.

Kaleidoscopes adorned her dining room table, the bathrooms, the refrigerator, windowsills and Jacuzzi.

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