Widow honors husband's devotion to Wildcats with UK tombstone

jtipton@herald-leader.comAugust 23, 2014 

JACKSON — After less than five years of marriage to her high school sweetheart, Judy Back became a widow. A massive heart attack took away her husband, William Charlie Back, at age 49 and suddenly thrust her into the tangle of funeral arrangements.

Her husband, whom everyone called "Bill," had told Judy that he wanted to be buried in a Navy dress uniform. He was a Navy veteran who served during the Persian Gulf War.

"We talked about some of the details," Judy said last week. "But never about the monument."

Her daily trips to and from a job at a Wendy's restaurant came to mind. Each way she passed Trinity Monuments, where owner Earl Chapman put tombstones on display outside his business. One featured a University of Kentucky basketball theme: a wildcat swiping a paw above interlocking "U" and "K" letters.

"I just kept seeing that UK monument," Judy said. "And I kept thinking, 'Now, wouldn't that be something different?'

"And that would be a way to honor him. Because he loved UK. I mean, well, we both love UK."

That's how, in 2012, there came to be UK tombstones in the Jackson Cemetery.

Initially, such a thought seems incongruous. Sort of like a basketball hoop in a pulpit.

"I did think of that at first ... ," Judy said before adding a moment later, "I didn't realize how pretty it was till (Chapman) set it up. Pictures did not do it justice."

A visit last week to the Jackson Cemetery confirmed Judy's decision. The cemetery, which opened in 1950, is a well-kept 20 acres or so that slope down gradually from Kentucky 15 toward a line of trees that obscures a narrow valley so bright green it could be mistaken for a river. A mountain rises up on the other side of the valley.

Most graves, if not all, were decorated with fresh flowers. The UK tombstones — blue letters "U" and "K" for Bill's plot, pink for Judy — do not catch the eye amid the flowery blaze of reds, yellows and blues.

Judy said that family and friends like the UK tombstones, which were carved out of black granite. On the front the customary names and dates of birth and death. On the back, a carving of Psalm 23 on Judy's stone and a "Letter From Heaven" on Bill's. Between the his-and-her tombstones is a carving of interlocking wedding bands with the date of their marriage: Dec. 13, 2007.

"They tell me how pretty it is," Judy said of the reactions she's heard. "And they say, 'I bet you spent a fortune on it.' I say, 'The money, to me, is not the issue. It's the fact I wanted to honor (Bill).'"

Chapman, 53, said the UK tombstone costs about $4,500. He said he's sold only the ones for Bill and Judy. The cost might give people pause, he said. Maybe, too, the radical departure from tradition.

"Some people, they say, 'It'd be nice to put in a flower bed,' " Chapman said, " 'But I don't think I'd want to put one on a cemetery (plot).' "

Watching a UK basketball game inspired Chapman. He said he turned to his wife and said a UK monument would be distinctive and mark the enduring link between Kentucky basketball and its fans.

Chapman's wife challenged him to design a UK monument. Trial and error ensued. He drew and then rejected a design that had a seated cat. He also tossed away a "U" on top of a "K" and the letters side by side.

Chapman, who began the monument business in 1996, contacted manufacturers in India and explained what he wanted. "Probably 85 percent of (monuments) come from India and China," he said.

When asked about reactions to the UK tombstone outside his business on Main Street, Chapman recalled a UK bloodmobile's annual visit to Jackson.

"I get tickled every time they go by," he said. "I've seen them almost hit the guard rail looking and pointing and turning around looking at it."

Judy sent a photo of her UK tombstones to John Calipari along with a letter thanking the Kentucky coach for returning the Wildcats to dominance.

"He thanked me for all the kind words and support," Judy said of the response she received from Calipari, "And he was really impressed with the stone. He said that was amazing."

For all his rooting interest, Bill never attended a UK game in Rupp Arena.

When asked what she believed her husband would think of the UK tombstones, Judy said:

"I would hope he's smiling down from heaven and saying, 'Great job.'"

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

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