“It was probably one of the more important decisions of my life,” said Kandel, now 89.
When Kandel, who grew up in Westchester, graduated from high school, she enlisted in the Marines for three years during the Korean War and became a clerk typist. It wasn’t long after that she was discovered by a photographer while stationed at the command’s office in Washington. From there, she became one of the few faces of women serving in the United States armed forces. “I was 18. I was blonde. I was very thin, pretty and tall,” she said. “I looked really good in a uniform.”
After being discovered, she was featured on a billboard in Times Square in Manhattan and was also on a postage stamp that debuted in 1952.
But Kandel wasn’t interested in advancing her career in the Marines. After her tour finished, she chose to attend Columbia University on the GI bill.
As the first in her family to attend college, she was enrolled in Columbia University’s newly founded School of General Studies. Kandel initially wanted to major in art, but she settled on psychology because, she said jokingly, “I wanted to find out what was wrong with me.”
While enrolled in Columbia’s first adult education program, attending school during the day and at night, she said she felt self-conscious about being an older student.
And the way she was treated by men while waiting online to collect the money from the GI bill for college was disheartening. Kandel said she was met with adversity by them, and they frequently questioned her veteran status.
After graduating from Columbia in 1958, Kandel worked at several teaching jobs. She received her master’s in art from C.W. Post, and then took a position teaching art at Portledge High School in Locust Valley for 15 years. She eventually became the head of the art department there.
Although she retired from teaching full time in 1999, Kandel has remained a strong advocate for the arts and an accomplished poet. Kandel’s notable works include “Between Stillness and Motion” and “30 Poems in 30 Days and the music that inspired them.”
Kandel proposed a one-time adult education course on poetry at the Great Neck Public School, not knowing that the person teaching that course at the time was retiring. She has since been teaching at the Great Neck Public School for 12 years, and recently expanded her classes to the Glen Cove Library during her term as poet laureate for Nassau County from 2019 until July.
Her longtime friend and fellow artist Barbara Segal, from Sea Cliff, said that the recent expansion of classes into Glen Cove was “bringing the poetry community together in a more focused way to people who weren’t necessarily poets.”
Kandel’s also been known to drive students to her classes who didn’t have their own reliable means of transportation.
When reflecting on the past five years, Kandel describes them as a “double whammy.” In 2017, her husband, Bob Kandel, was diagnosed with lung disease, and died two months ago.
During her husband’s illness, Kandel joined a caregiver group at Glen Cove Hospital, where she met Victoria and Hank Bjorklund, of Sea Cliff, who were seeking support for Victoria’s mother. The caregiver group offered a space for advice from other caregivers, as well as a means of social support.
Eventually Kandel and the Bjorklunds became friends who are also students in Kandel’s poetry classes at the library. They’ve maintained their friendship ever since.
When the Covid-19 pandemic started, Kandel felt her focus drift even more. “With great trepidation I started ‘zooming,’ and it was kind of a joke,” Kandel said. Victoria Bjorklund disagreed, stating that Kandel’s classes were well-managed and have in fact become more popular via Zoom, with a nucleolus of students who are excited about future classes.
“Being in her class at Great Neck and Glen Cove has been a real lifeline to me in many ways,” Hank Bjorklund said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
Kandel was invited on July 16 to attend the Listen to the Wind 2022 Gala, hosted by Honor Flight, where she was recognized for her early years as a Marine. The nonprofit organization provides a free one-day trip for World War II, Korean and Vietnam war veterans. The all-expenses paid round-trip excursion brings veterans to their memorials in Washington. In Kandel’s case, it also included a set of newly issued dress blues since she wasn’t issued the attire during her time of service.