Linda Kaat's journey from pitcher's wife to historic preservationist

Linda Kaat, ex-wife of former Phillies pitcher Jim Kaat , visits the stabilized ruin of the colonial Martin's Tavern in Marshallton, Chester County, one of the historic preservation projects she has advanced.
Linda Kaat, ex-wife of former Phillies pitcher Jim Kaat , visits the stabilized ruin of the colonial Martin's Tavern in Marshallton, Chester County, one of the historic preservation projects she has advanced.
Posted: October 19, 2010

A storybook romance with a pitcher brought her to the Philadelphia area, but a love affair with history led her to create her own legacy here.

Linda Kaat, an ex-wife of former Phillie Jim Kaat, has quietly secured a reputation as a persuasive, results-oriented preservationist with her own legion of fans.

Many people she has worked with attribute her success to her ability to enlist people's help. "You can't say no to Linda Kaat," said George "Frolic" Weymouth, an artist and cofounder of the Brandywine Conservancy. He called her "a valuable, steady presence" in the region.

Her biggest impact might have been leading the effort to keep the Brandywine Battlefield open in the face of state budget cuts. Other efforts to preserve the past included the discovery of an Indian grave and restorations of a train station and a colonial tavern.

"Time is history's worst enemy," Kaat said. "And once we lose precious parts of our heritage, we can't get them back."

Kaat, 60, a lifelong baseball fan, met her future husband one night in 1976. She was at Perry's, a San Francisco bar and restaurant, when a taxi pulled up and a bunch of Phillies spilled out, including two of her favorites: Tim McCarver and Steve Carlton.

But it was the tall one who invited her to join the group. He turned out to be Jim Kaat, a fellow Midwesterner. "I guess it was love at first sight," she said. "We married less than a year later."

So in 1977, at the age of 26, Linda Kaat found herself in Pennsylvania, where she knew no one, with a husband who traveled often and his two teenage children. She said many Phillies lived in South Jersey condos next to golf courses, but Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter recognized her reverence for history and pointed the new arrivals toward the western suburbs.

Although her husband would have preferred a homestead with a view of fairways, he bought a 50-acre estate with an 18th-century barn and fieldstone manor house in Glen Mills. "It was my wedding gift," said Linda Kaat.

She knew Sweetwater Farm needed extensive repairs, but a visit by infielder Davey Johnson signaled the urgency when a ceiling crack in the guest bedroom gave way. "First, we heard the sound of plaster crashing," followed by a cloud of dust, she said, grateful that no one was in the room at the time.

Five years later, the property was restored and transformed into a bed-and-breakfast that she operated.

Kaat next set her sights on the dilapidated Glen Mills train station a mile away and began pestering SEPTA "to at least let her mow the grass." That was the first step toward renovation by the Thornbury Historical Society, to which Kaat belonged.

"It's never just me," she said. "I always have lots of great help. I'm just the sparkplug."

Berle M. Schiller, a U.S. district judge in Philadelphia, said Kaat's reputation as "a fantastic innkeeper" gave her valuable contacts in the community because she was always hosting people and community events.

"People can't say no to her because they know she has no hidden agenda," said Schiller, who has known her for more than two decades. "She just wants to do good work for the community. She never wants anything for herself."

Sometimes her projects have met resistance, Kaat said, often because people wrongly have assumed they would be funded by taxpayers, not donations.

She said she had the Phillies to thank for acquiring a tough skin to deal with critics. "When you're at a game and fans are yelling, 'Pull that bum out of there,' you had to sit there and take it," she said.

Her marriage to Kaat ended in divorce after 10 years. Despite the breakup, Kaat remains one of her ex-husband's biggest fans and keeps up friendships with many others in baseball. Jim Kaat ended his pitching career with the Cardinals in 1983 and was a longtime Yankees broadcaster.

"I'm hoping to see him get into the Hall of Fame," she said, "either for his pitching or his broadcasting."

After Sweetwater Farm was sold - a casualty of the divorce - Kaat spent about five years traveling before history drew her back to Chester County in 1995.

Ultimately, she landed in Marshallton, where she lives with her pet dog, Puppy Kaat, and works as development director of the Chester County SPCA.

The charm of the 250-year-old village appealed to her - but a derelict 241-year-old tavern next door did not.

Before long, Kaat and the Friends of Martin's Tavern worked to "deconstruct" the four-story eyesore, creating a "stabilized ruin" from the stonework of the original two-story structure. It formed the centerpiece of a village green that has received an award from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

"We were 60 years too late to save the building," Kaat lamented.

While researching the tavern, Kaat learned that the grounds of the former Embreeville State Hospital complex in Newlin Township contained the grave of Indian Hannah, the last member of the Leni-Lenape tribe to live in Chester County in colonial times.

The burial plot was being used as a dumping ground. In 2009, after nearly two years of cleanup and other work, Kaat attended the rededication of a monument to Indian Hannah.

"A history gene must be in my DNA," Kaat said, saying one project often morphs into another.

Kaat remembers playing as a child in an Indian log cabin a couple miles from her family's farm in Okawville, Ill., and feeling "such a sense of place" as she imagined the Indians' past.

"It was such a privilege to be in that historic setting and wonder what their lives would have been like," she said.

When Kaat returned to the site at 23, she was upset to learn it had been destroyed. That's one reason that Kaat, who heads the Friends of Brandywine Battlefield, galvanized a group of volunteers to keep the site open after massive state budget cuts.

"It was frightening to see an American landmark so endangered," she said. "We are struggling to keep it open."

She is also working to help preserve the stone markers delineating the path forged by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon from 1763 to 1768. The two Englishmen, an astronomer and a surveyor, were tasked with settling an 80-year property dispute between the proprietors of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Today, most Americans view the Mason-Dixon Line as a Civil War divider between the North and South, but Kaat said its rich history far exceeded that designation.

Kim Hall, the president of the Chester County Historical Society, said having someone like Kaat calling attention to "forgotten treasures" was wonderful.

"Linda exudes such passion and commitment to a noble cause, which makes it difficult to turn her down," Hall said.

Kaat said she has sometimes sought counsel about potential projects from her mother, who still lives on the family farm.

Her mother's response?

"If you don't, who will?"


Contact staff writer Kathleen Brady Shea at 610-696-3815 or kbrady@phillynews.com.

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