'His life was UK:' Friends, fans pay tribute to 'Wah Wah' Jones

jtipton@herald-leader.comJuly 31, 2014 

University of Kentucky sports icon Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones was so true blue, he did not want red cups used in his home. That was the University of Louisville's color.

"But it's Christmas," his wife, Edna, said.

To which Jones said, "Get green."

One of his daughters, Vicki Jones, smiled as she recalled the story Thursday at a celebration of the former UK star's life. The setting was K House, an official gathering place for the school's former athletes. Jones, who died Sunday at age 88, lay in an open blue stainless steel coffin set against a wall. Memorabilia celebrating his athletic exploits was on display throughout a room that seemed about the size of a half-court. UK basketball, football and baseball jerseys marked the entrance.

Photographs on walls, on tables and in display cases showed Jones as basketball player, football star, Olympian, husband (it was a huge wedding party), father, grandfather, great-grandfather. In one photo, a youthful Jones wore a striped bow tie as he sat next to Dwight Eisenhower and looked the president in the eye.

"This is the most appropriate place for dad," another daughter, Ira Dawson, said of K House. "His life was UK."

While acknowledging the "wonderful outpouring" of condolence from the UK family of fans and officials, Dawson said it came at a price.

"Part of me thinks you're not saying goodbye in private," she said as her voice quivered momentarily with emotion. "But, you know, my dad wouldn't want it any other way."

The very public celebration began in Jones' hometown of Harlan with a two-hour visitation Wednesday. Perhaps that visitation helped console the people of Harlan as well as Jones' family.

"They've never forgotten my daddy in Harlan," Dawson said. "They wanted to say goodbye to their hero out of Harlan."

Another visitation will be 10 a.m. to noon Friday at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington. The funeral service will follow at noon. Jones will be buried in Lexington Cemetery next to his wife, Edna, who died in 2003.

At K House, the mood was not somber. Smiles and good cheer filled the air as well-wishers hugged Jones' daughters or shook his son's hand. Small children filled with carefree innocence darted here and there, oblivious to the 1944 Kentucky High School Basketball Tournament program (Jones led Harlan to the state title that year) or Jones on the cover of a 1948 edition of Sportfolio: The Illustrated Digest of All Sports, apparently a precursor to Sports Illustrated.

Visitors to K House included former UK Coach Joe B. Hall, former assistant Dick Parsons, former UK player Cliff Berger, Senior associate athletic director Russ Pear, associate A.D. Bob Bradley, former UK quarterback Bill Ransdell, Bill Keightley's daughter Karen Marlowe, Kenny Rollins' brother Phil Rollins and son Kevin Rollins, and horseman Tom Gentry.

When asked about choosing K House for the celebration, Jones' son, also named Wallace and known as "Wah," said, "Dad was true blue through and through. You couldn't talk badly of UK and Harlan to him. Those two things were sacred to him."

The memorabilia suggested that Jones was something of a hoarder. Not so.

"My mother was the collector," Vicki Jones said.

Looking around the room, she said, "This is just a drop in the bucket."

Certainly, Jones' life was stuffed with accomplishments: high school state title, member of UK's Fabulous Five, three national championships (1946 NIT, 1948 and 1949 NCAA), all-Southeastern Conference football end, Olympic gold medal.

So how much memorabilia did Edna Jones collect? "Try 17 crates of newspaper articles," Vicki Jones said, hinting at the starting point of the mementos the family must sift through.

The memorabilia on display, which included a letter of thanks from former UK Coach Tubby Smith and plaques commemorating induction into at least three Halls of Fame, a 50-year reunion of Harlan High's state title team and Jones as grand marshal of Harlan County's 1994 Christmas parade, gave evidence of an eventful life.

"He lived a very full life," Dawson said. "He enjoyed life up until the very end."

Dawson recalled great-grandchildren visiting Jones last Friday in his room at an assisted living center in Lexington. He grinned broadly when 6-year-old Addilyn came into the room. He tried to get 13-month-old Amelia to clap her hands.

Dawson's husband, Bruce, recalled watching a Cincinnati Reds game with Jones a few weeks ago. Jones explained in detail the game situation: How many runners on base, how many outs and the proper strategy.

For the past two months, Vicki Jones read the newspaper sports section to her father each day, paying particular attention to UK teams and athletes.

"He always wanted to write a book," Vicki Jones said of her father. "We never got around to it."

He had begun the process by recording memories on a tape.

"I have to listen to those tapes," Vicki Jones said with a hint of determination in her voice. "But not for a while."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: UKbasketball.bloginky.com.

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