In Journalism 101 they teach us to tread lightly around the word “unique” to avoid the pitfall of calling something or someone somewhat unique, sometimes unique or very unique. The word “unique” does not require a modifier because it means “one of a kind.”
At the risk of the University of Kentucky rescinding my journalism degree, I must say Rena Vicini was the uniquest person I ever met, and there aren’t enough modifiers in the English language to describe how shocked and saddened we are to learn of her passing at 62.
Rena was a journalist and writer at heart and I first met her when she was a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader and I was a student working in the UK sports information office. When there was an opening for a “women’s SID,” as it was called back then, Russell Rice hired Rena with little sports information experience. She was known to say “Chris taught me everything I know” about sports information (a blatant exaggeration), but really Rena taught all of us more than she will ever know.
When I returned to UK as her boss in 1988, she began calling me her “bossy-wossy-moo-moo,” or “BWMM” for short. Nonsensical, of course, but also brilliant in the way it connoted both respect and affection and described our good-natured relationship. I began calling her “Gracie” when she adopted a hairstyle that hinted of Susan Dey’s character on our favorite show at the time, L.A. Law. We got very little work done on Friday mornings until we finished discussing the previous night’s episode. I’m not sure she ever recovered from Diana Muldaur falling down that elevator shaft.
Rena was at all times smart, witty, thoughtful, fun and funny. She never missed a chance to remind you she was a Catholic coal miner’s daughter from Lynch or that she had a nephew nicknamed “Puddin’ Bear.” If you knew Rena you also knew Joey, Ginnie, Mary Beth, all of Rena’s extended family, and odds are you spent hours at her little white frame house on Clays Mill Road drinking beer and listening to oldies on her jukebox. She loved UK football and was the eternal optimist, forever convinced next year would be season the Cats would break through their decades-old wall of frustration. Her friends became family, a huge family, there were so many of them, too many to name. She introduced her great friend Melanie to one of Rick Pitino’s assistants because she thought they would make a great pair, and she adored Melanie and Herb Sendek and their three beautiful daughters.
Rena was with me in Philly for the infamous UK-Duke-greatest-ever game and if you look at footage of what would have been the most famous play in UK basketball history if not for you-know-who, the Sean Woods shot with 2.1 seconds remaining, you can see Rena looking up at the scoreboard and erupting behind the UK bench. Totally unprofessional but uniquely Rena. Later that night, when a macabre group of devastated fans (some of them crying) swarmed the team in the lobby of the Warwick Hotel, Rena and I grabbed Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer & Woods and led them through the restaurant kitchen and out the back door. Rena was staying at the media hotel so we convened in her room, raided the mini bar and toasted the “Unforgettables” and each other. We couldn’t get away with that now, but I’m sure glad we did back then. Cheers.
Although Rena was very good at her job, she would be the first to admit she’d rather be napping, something she did every day at lunchtime and then immediately after work. Everyone knew not to poke the sleeping bear at that Clays Mill Road house until after 6 p.m. Her lack of fondness for working became a topic we joked about openly with her, and she would laugh the hardest. “Chreeees,” she would say, “you know I don’t like to work.” We all snickered when she would say “I’m going to (UK) Printing,” which was code for “I’m going home to nap.” Rena holds a world record that will never be eclipsed for trips to UK Printing. One night we stayed up until 3 a.m. talking on the phone about work ethic and life in general. At that time I was on one end of the spectrum and Rena was on the other; we had vastly different definitions of work-life balance. I vaguely remember saying something about taking pride in our work, but I clearly remember Rena’s words: “Chris, in the end, all that really matters is your family, your friends and being loved.” She was right, things really should tip off balance in that direction.
When I left UK in 1993, C.M. Newton asked me to recommend a replacement. Rena really wanted the job but I was torn because I knew of another great candidate who had applied. I asked Rick Pitino for his opinion and he said “Chris, that’s a no-braina. Rena is your friend. You always have to go with your friends.” Of course he was right. Rena got the job, and today I’m so grateful to Rick Pitino for giving me the advice that spared me from years of regret. Not sure I have enough room in my heart today for both sadness and regret.
In the end, Rena got her wish. She was loved until the moment her heart stopped beating and we will love her until ours give out. I heard she was found on the couch with the TV on. A part of me hopes she had been watching a rerun of L.A. Law.
So goodnight, Gracie. You were the uniquest person I knew, and the world just became a little more dull.