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Retirees show true blue love for Cats

It's Saturday, and the grand piano meets you in the atrium entry. The fireplace is glowing. The Mardi Gras decorations are on the tables.

It's almost lunchtime at Hartland Hills, a retirement community just off Tates Creek Road in south Lexington. It's Game Day, which explains the blue and white pompons in the dining room chairs and the fact that almost every resident is dressed in some decidedly familiar shade of Kentucky blue with a tasteful smattering of Kentucky white.

It's been this way all season when an important foe is on the schedule. The rowdiest of residents know that at 12:15, before the 12:30 meal, Alice Jean Gibson, the longtime wife of a Methodist minister, will have put her cheerleaders on notice that the pep rally is on.

Kacey Hargis, the 29-year-old enrichment coordinator at Hartland Hills, stands by to do Alice Jean's bidding. That is, post the notice to the rest of the community to wear the colors and get down to the dining room at the appointed time. Plump the pompons. Don her UK earrings. Help others do the same.

The Cats need them. Proven fact. This time to rally them past Tennessee, a game that will start at 1 p.m.

Most everybody will be dining on Moroccan chicken with buttered noodles by then. (Have no fear, Boston cream pie will be finished before halftime. And Alice Jean has her radio and earbuds.)

Alice Jean didn't start this fine tradition of Wildcat pep rallies at the retirement community, she says. Rather, it was begun by an early manager who got the servers involved soon after it opened, in 2000. That's when the Gibsons moved in as some of the first residents.

But when the manager left, Alice Jean, a "basketball maniac," according to her husband, asked if she could get some folks together to carry on the tradition.

Not so much for football's sake, but for basketball's.

Ray Gibson was on board because he supports her "in every way I can."

So, too, does the rest of the Hartland Hills community. Some because they are dyed-in-the-wools like Alice Jean. Some because they are new to Kentucky and learning to be like us. And some just because this is a very real community, and that is what communities do.

Real devotion

Two of the original cheerleaders, Betty Brown and Helen Toth, have passed away. Alice Jean had to replace them, as she absolutely must have four cheerleaders — to spell out C-A-T-S. Marj Kohler and Earle Dixon have done beautifully as the T and the A, while Alice Jean remains the C and Ernie Toth, Helen's widower, is the S. Ray is always the guy who holds up the blue and the white at the appropriate time.

Even in the privacy of her home, Alice Jean tends to take her basketball rather seriously, watching it in a room by herself because "Ray jinxes the game."

"She knows the players' names, their numbers," says Ray, "and what size socks they wear."

"Once," says Alice Jean, "Ray was on a mission trip to Belize and we were playing Tennessee and we were behind by one point and he called and I said I can only talk for a half minute."

Ray says it's true.

Alice Jean drives Ray to Rotary every Thursday and then she drives herself to the restaurant where Billy Gillispie dines every Thursday.

"Once, around Christmas, he got to the front door the same time I did and he opened the door for me. Doesn't know me from Adam but it was nice."

Revving the crowd

Back at the dining room, the pep rally is about to start. Marj, the T, says she wasn't a cheerleader the first time around in life so "I'm making up for lost time."

Earle, the A, played basketball in high school, she says, until they decided that it was too rough for girls, so she was a cheerleader for her senior year.

Ernie, who is also Hartland Hill's bingo caller, has the loudest, deepest voice imaginable, appropriate for a Kentucky cheerleader.

He starts the rally.

"If you're not from Kentucky," he intones. "I'm sorry. Tennessee, you should know, is our ultimate rival. Are you ready to cheer?"

The loaded dining room yells back, "Yes."

Ray holds up a blue card.

"Blue."

Now a white card.

"White."

It's a rousing few minutes of cheering before the salad course.

Then Ernie gives the benediction.

"If anybody can do a cartwheel now, go right ahead."

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