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

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.

"I like to have them where people are sitting or eating," Mrs. Baker told the Washington City Paper in 2002. "They're nourishment for the soul."

Mrs. Baker said viewing kaleidoscopes was like combining the majesty of fireworks, stained-glass windows, rainbows, sunrises and sunsets into one simple package.

She compared the enchantment to "a surprise party for the eyes."

"A kaleidoscope creates a sense of magic, of wonder," Mrs. Baker told The Post in 1989. "You look into an ordinary tube and there's a glorious work of art at the end of it."

She even kept a miniature kaleidoscope attached to a necklace. Whenever she was at an intersection, she'd stare through it at the stoplight hanging above.

After her 1982 trip to Nashville, Mrs. Baker embarked on a kaleidoscope pilgrimage from "Cape Cod to California," where she began hunting for models to add to her growing collection.

One electric kaleidoscope cost her more than $12,000. She found another, a 500-pound behemoth that measured 12 feet long and six feet tall, sitting in an artist's basement.

At one point, her husband, Harold F. Baker, a prominent Washington antitrust lawyer, voiced his astonishment at the $3,200 pricetag of a recent acquisition.

"'All you can do is look in it,'" she recalled him saying. "And I said, 'Hell, that's all you do with the television!'รข??"

Hazel Cozette Oliver was born Nov. 14, 1923, in Wilmore, Ky. She was a 1943 graduate of Asbury College in her home town and came to Washington shortly afterward.

Her husband died in 2008 after 65 years of marriage.

Survivors include two children, BarbiRichardson and Brant Baker, both of Boyds; a sister; and four grandchildren.

As the founder and longtime leader of the international Brewster Society, Mrs. Baker helped donate hundreds of kaleidoscopes to the Salvation Army, to troops engaged in Operation Desert Storm and to charities for children with AIDS.

She curated numerous exhibitions of kaleidoscopes in museums around the country and lent 125 kaleidoscopes from her own collection for an installation in a terminal at the San Francisco International Airport.

Mrs. Baker wrote several books on kaleidoscopes, including "Kaleidorama," published in 1990.

She believed kaleidoscopes possessed transformative powers and once tested her theory by aiming a teleidoscope, which has a clear lens on the end, at a plate of egg yolks and cigarette ashes.

"It came out beautifully," she said.

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