(John Asher. One of the best people I will ever know. Photo Courtesy of Churchill Downs.)
I still remember the first time I met John Asher. Today, when I heard the disturbing news that he had passed away from an apparent heart attack while vacationing in Florida, the images, the memories and the tears all came rolling down like a boulder from “The Hill.”
You see, it was 1977 — some 41 years ago — that the two of us accidentally, luckily ran into each other. Literally.
John was attending his beloved Western Kentucky University. How he loved the Hilltoppers. After all it was a short jaunt from his boyhood home in Leitchfield to Bowling Green. It was the only school for John Asher. It was written on his face and heart and worn on his sleeve with greatest of pride.
I, on the other hand, was attending my beloved Eastern Kentucky University. How I loved the Colonels. After all, it was just a short drive from my home in Midway, KY. And, after my visit one summer day, it was the only school that I ever considered attending.
John and I were the same age, and, as fate would have it, in our respective schools at the very same time. And, on this occasion of our first introduction, we ended up in the same pressbox; on the same Saturday in the Fall; and covering a football game, which was — at the time — the most bitter rivalry in all of the Commonwealth.
It was Eastern vs. Western. It was Roy Kidd vs. Jimmy Feix. It was tradition vs. traditional. It was maroon vs. red. And, those colors ran so deep that it truly was the blood that pumped through the veins.
And, it was Gene McLean — sports editor of “The Eastern Progress,” vs. John Asher, working for the school paper, school radio, school PR department. Or so it was supposed to be. No doubt.
When we met, I just knew that we were not born to be friends. How could we be? School loyalties ran deep, and emotions even deeper. We had to be cut from different cloths. I didn’t see it at the time, but I as sure that John must have one of those damn red towels somewhere tucked in or under that beautiful coat and tie. I didn’t wear it, I’m sure, but I am sure that I walked over to the stadium from the EKU team bus with an “E” on my sleeve.
Had to be hate at first sight, right?
Had to be.
But then we bumped into each other. Literally. Trying to get to our seats in the crowded pressbox, we brushed. Trying to negotiate the tiny, little, narrow gaps between chair and aisle, we collided a bit. Trying as we might to avoid the other, we totally t-boned right at the intersection of truth and honesty.
And, the man I was born to hate, looked up, trying to balance a plate of barbecue and pickles with a hearty handshake and apology. He smiled a smile that glistens to his very day. And, in that deep baritone voice, he shook my world to the very core.
“I’m so sorry. Hope I didn’t get anything on you. I’m John Asher, and you are?”
The guy from Western Kentucky University had just become one of the nicest humans in the world. And, the thing about it, John Asher didn’t even have to try. It was just who he was. It was just who he grew up to be. It was just who John Asher embodied.
Kind. Generous. Fun. Uplifting. Gregarious. Gentleman. Consummate professional.
And, as fate would have it, friend.
To be honest, I was always envious of John. Right from the beginning. WKU had the better journalism school, or so the reputation went. I probably would agree with the assessment, as much as it pains me to admit. WKU had the better sports programs, or so most people thought. And, with the banners that hang throughout Diddle Arena, fact held more weight than fiction. And, John had a voice, a demeanor, a smile, a personality, and a love of the game that you could only dream of, all wrapped up in one lovable package.
Try as I must, I couldn’t help but like John Asher. And, so did everyone else. In today’s world, it doesn’t take much effort to find someone who will criticize or demean someone else. Doesn’t take much to find someone that will find fault with another.
But I don’t think you can find one single person in this entire world that would — or could — say a single negative thing about John Asher. He was that good at his job. He was that good at his life.
It didn’t take long for our professional lives to collide after we left our respective alma maters. John found his way to Louisville, and went to work in the grand world of radio. And, it truly was grand in that era. I, on the other hand, went to Lexington and started with “The Lexington Herald-Leader.”
We both covered some of the best high school games, at first, including the State Tournaments. We always sat and talked. We both covered some of the best college games, after that, including the University of Louisville. Imagine that. The “The Lexington Herald-Leader” actually sent a reporter — me — to cover U of L. And, we always found time to reconnect.
But the best time of year came in the Spring. John and I — along with good friends Dick Gabriel and G.D. Hieronymous — would always meet up at the backside of Churchill Downs. We would hit the barns all week leading up to the Kentucky Derby. We exchanged more than pleasantries. We gave each other story ideas; notes; clips; sound bites; and tips. Often times, I would jump in his car when he gave his regular on-air updates, and he went into his “radio voice” and persona. I loved watching the man work. He had a network the world wide. And, he was good. Damn good.
We would go see Leroy Jolley, who trained the great filly Genuine Risk. We would stay long enough to visit with the legendary D. Wayne Lukas. We went to the courthouse when young Laz Barrera sued to get into the Kentucky Derby with the 21st nominee. And, we loved visiting with Louie Roussel and Ronnie Lamarque.
We found Woody Stephens and Seth Hancock when the great Swale won the Kentucky Derby, giving the iconic Claiborne Farm its’ first and only Kentucky Derby winner. We visited with the great Charlie Whittingham, and learned which pocket the master always carried his peppermint treats for the best of his stable.
We loved watching Personal Ensign beat Winning Colors in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. We loved watching Winning Colors win the KY Derby. We loved watching Alysheba and Ferdinand. We loved horse racing.
It wasn’t hard to imagine when John Asher got the call to follow in the footsteps of some of the best Public Relations Specialists in the world of sports — and, in particular, the Thoroughbred Industry — and join the team at Churchill Downs in January of 1997. It was the only place in the world that he truly ever wanted to work, and the only sports venue that could come close to rival his beloved WKU.
It was the perfect marriage.
In 1999, John was elevated to the title of Vice President of Racing Communications. But, in all honestly, the job description and the title never, ever meant much to John. He was, and forever more shall be, the greatest ambassador that the track will ever have.
Through the years, he assembled so many awards and accolades that the Derby Museum should — truthfully — open up a dedicated wing to his memory. Award-winning radio journalist. Five Eclipse Awards. National Headliner and Scripps-Howard Award. Warner L. Jones, Jr. Horseman of the Year Award. Charles W. Engelhard Award for excellence in media coverage. And, so many more. So many more.
Yet, the one award that mattered to him the most was not an award at all. It was a reward.
The reward that he could get up every single day and go to Churchill Downs to work. Every single day, if he wanted and wished. And, for the most part, that is truly all he wanted or wished.
There is not one single thing that John Asher didn’t love about Churchill Downs. And, while the word “love” is sometimes over-used, it is truly an inadequate term in this case. You see, John Asher loved Churchill Downs.
He loved the backside and all of its’ many peoples. He loved the pressbox, and the characters that always found time to visit and assemble there. And, every step in-between the ground floor and the lofty perch, he took time to shake every hand extended to him; return every smile offered; and generously help anyone who had a question or needed assistance.
This Spring, just 10 days before the Kentucky Derby, I was admitted to the hospital with a very serious health issue. Although I was able to recover, I was still a bit shaken and a little unsteady on my feet when I decided — probably ill-advised — to go to the backside before the KY Oaks and KY Derby weekend. The first person I “ran into” on the backside was John Asher.
Immediately, he came over and asked about my health. And, he offered anything and everything he could to make my stay a bit more comfortable and easier.
Just the way he was. Every. Single. Day.
John Asher was what we all should strive to be in this world, which offers us a residence for such a short, precious time slot. He was a humble servant. Willing to help. Wanting to give. Wishing to do more. Waiting on all.
I will miss my good friend, John Asher — a friend I never thought I would ever have; and a friend now that I never thought I would be without. Most of all, though, I will miss all the things that he stood for and cared about and he easily showed everyone that came into contact with him, like I did some 41 years ago. Literally.
I will miss his class.
So long, my good friend.