by Kim Thomas
(see this week's issue of Ace Weekly for entire published article)
Even after a year of learning the news, it's still hard to believe. When Kentucky lost its greatest Wildcat fan, longtime UK equipment manager Bill Keightley late last March, there was such an immediate sense of loss for anyone who ever watched a UK basketball game, you couldn't buy a smile in this town for over a week. In fact, anyone who followed college basketball knew his name, knew his smile, and knew him as the unfailing supportive face of the Big Blue Nation, as fans rejoiced in many a UK victory, yet bowed in serious sorrow through five coaching changes, a near-death penalty, and the Christian Laettner moments of despair.
To UK Basketball fans, he was a comforting presence, no matter how many technicals Coach Pitino was on his way to racking up, Bill Keightley was always there, right behind him, right behind the team, with that Semper Fi look in his eye. (He was a Marine, after all). And after Eddie Sutton's scandal-plagued tenure and resignation, how could WE give up on them, if Bill Keightley still believed the Cats could and WOULD win it all? Then there was the uneasy shifting of the sands, aka The Great Transition, when seemingly mild-mannered Joe B. Hall inherited the coaching throne from the sarcastic and snappy King of Coaches, Adolph Rupp. Even during that awkward and uneasy time for University of Kentucky devotees, though we all loved Coach Hall, the change in coaches did cause a wave of discomfort throughout the Bluegrass somewhat akin to a decade-long hiccup of the Big Blue psyche -- and yet the one constant and abiding factor was this wonderful, smiling man called Mr. Wildcat who, like my Mom and Dad (my son, and myself) never gave up on the Cats, no matter what. Yes, he was a comforting presence...and that's only speaking from someone whistling from the upper arena. As it turns out, coaches Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie also looked to Keightley as the one constant force that kept things in perspective throughout all the ups and downs of their seasons. Indeed, coaches and players throughout the NCAA admired him too, and anybody who knows anything about college basketball would've given anything to have been his best friend, have a drink with him, and talk about the Wildcats.
So it's only befitting that Mr. Keightley will be honored on April 1, an evening at his favorite hangout during an event Merrick Inn owners Bobby and Jennifer Murray say will, "celebrate the memory of our dear friend Bill "Mr. Wildcat" Keightley. The anticipation of that night is quickly building, due in large part to the exciting reveal of a new portrait painted by Jennifer's mother Marianne Wainscott of Mr. Keightley, which she began to create a little over two years ago. Also on this night honoring Keightley, friends can drink "Special K's" (Diet Coke and Makers Mark...tall, very tall), enjoy his favorite dish of fried oysters, and bid on a chance to purchase one of a kind Makers Mark items supplied by Southern Wine & Spirits, along with other Kentucky favorites, a Cincinnati Reds package, and hand dipped glasses etched with the April 1, 2009 date. Former UK players Austin Kerns and Pookie Jones will contribute items to be bid upon as well. Proceeds from the auction and a portion of the night's revenues will be donated to the Bill Keightley Endowment, which benefits University of Kentucky equipment managers.
Fans and Fellows
Keightley's happy hour buddies still sit at the bay window table of Merrick Inn's tavern most every evening, and if you ask them, you will hear great words of love and gentle kidding about this good spirited soul, who always joyously added-to but never took away from their close camaraderie. Stan Kerrick agrees, "Bill always said he never met a man he didn't like, but he did say that there was one person he liked the least...but he would never tell us who that was!" Kerrick first met Keightley in 1962, and had just had dinner with him days before his sudden passing. Greg Williamson's eyes sparkle, and in fact, all these nice gentlemen at the bay window glow like an ember when they talk about Mr. Wildcat. Williamson talks about his loyalty to the players and the coaches and also emphasizes that he never heard any note of discontent or discouragement from him. He had the ability to be familiar and put at ease anyone -- athletes, coaches, or the man on the street. Apparently he also enjoyed cutting up with his friends and was so easy to be with, long time friend Joe Flynn calls him the "life of the UK basketball program," and laughs, "He knew so much about me, we HAD to be friends!"
From Fido to Semper Fi
Merrick Inn manager and former bartender Amy Fisher became a Keightley fan when she served him as "a regular that you just love to see coming down the sidewalk and into the place! In fact, I still look out at the sidewalk and expect him to come walking up." When he died, Fisher was aware that owners Bobby and Jennifer Murray had asked for and were eagerly anticipating the result of a project that had been in the making for about a year prior. Jennifer's mother, Marianne Wainscott (who at one time owned the Greyhound Grill in Ft. Mitchell) was about to finish the portrait she was painting of Keightley, which she had begun about two years ago. The portrait is to be placed in the honored spot above the bar previously held by the likeness of the faithful pet of Merrick's original owner, Libby Murray. Keightley knew about it, and was excited about the portrait; he had even furnished several photos for Wainscott to use as models. Since the finished portrait is almost done, Fisher then came up with a way to gather some of Bill's best friends (and it turns, out that is EVERYONE), reveal the portrait, and raise donations for the Bill Keightley Endowment Fund.
The pleasant dining experience that is known as the Merrick Inn was formerly operated by Libby Murray, who many years ago added her unique touches to the restaurant that is well known by seasoned diners as THE place to eat in Central Kentucky. Those who have enjoyed dinner there may remember that over the bar for many years was a portrait of the Murrays' much-beloved Australian Terrier Leroy Brown, and now that Leroy's portrait is in her home, Libby Murray is ecstatic that Mr. Keightley's portrait will soon be a permanent fixture there for all to see and treasure. When approached by Merrick's General Managers Amy Fisher and Geof Casey about having this event, Libby of course said, "Yes! Because he was the greatest man we've ever known!"
Empty Chair, Jerseys Honor Memory
Bill Keightley, (also known as Mr. Bill, or Mr. Smooth) served as Equipment Manager for 48 years. The Wildcats not only did not hire a new equipment manager for the 2009 season, but did in fact leave Keightley's chair on the Kentucky bench empty for the season in his honor. As an additional tribute, the first "K" in "KENTUCKY" on the players’ jerseys for the 2009 season is outlined in black. The Bill Keightley Endowment Fund funds scholarships for the children of equipment managers for the University of Kentucky, who Keightley affectionately called “my boys.”
see Rick Pitino's eulogy at Memorial Service for Bill Keightley:
Merrick Inn owners Bobby and Jennifer Murray’s invitation:
You are cordially invited to Merrick Inn to celebrate the memory of our dear friend Bill "Mr. Wildcat" Keightley. In tribute to Mr. Keightley, we will be having a silent auction where all proceeds will be donated to the Bill Keightley Endowment Fund. Guest appearance from Mr. Bill Samuel, Master Distiller of Makers Mark Distillery, who will be concocting Special K's throughout the evening.
The event will take place on April 1st from 6pm to 10pm in Merrick's Big Bar and/or Patio (weather permitting) and the silent auction will be announced between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m.
RSVP is not necessary but appreciated. Please join us for this special event with friends and family who were all touched by Bill Keightley.
In memory of Bill "Mr. Wildcat" Keightley