Too tough to die

The last time I saw my friend Francene Cucinello was on Wednesday, Dec. 9. We had drinks at the Outlook Inn, a favorite of hers. She’d been on me for days to head out for a drink in honor of my impending departure to Nashville.

She’d been sipping on a Diet Coke at the bar for several minutes by the time I arrived, late as usual. I laughed when I noticed her drink.

“What is this?”

“Hi honey!” She stood and wrapped her arms around me, and we held a tight embrace. When we pulled away I asked her again, in a mocking tone, what was with the drink.

She said she’d been saving up. I am not easy to keep up with, apparently. She could do that to you, this woman: make you feel like you owned the world.

Francene died Friday at the age of 43. She suffered a heart attack followed by a brain aneurysm.

I did not know Francene for a long time, nor would I claim to have any real insight into the kind of person she was. I, like many of you, knew her persona. She was brash and aggressive, honest and fearless. Plenty of people in Louisville’s journalism community claimed to revile her, although I suspect they — like me on some days — were envious of her position. She was queen of Kentucky radio. If you didn’t like it, you turned the dial.

And there was the rub. Often, such a seemingly simple maneuver was elusive. Francene’s critics slotted her in categories with the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, but they were wrong. She played the averages, not the margins. She was conservative, yes; consider her core audience. I was often tempted to call in and chide Francene when she allowed a fringe-right caller or guest to rant absent any facts. I never did, mostly because The Host — showing a Zen patience that would do wonders for our political discourse, not to mention AM talk radio — would follow up, setting said record (and caller) straight.

I took seemingly endless criticism from LEO loyalists for hiring her as a columnist in 2008. But she was smart, bold and well reasoned in her writing — the only real qualifications for such a position. She, unlike most local journos when challenged to say it in public, gave LEO Weekly the respect it deserves. When we had a good story, she bit, playing it up on her show, which is certainly not a comfortable place for such a bastion of progressivism as John Yarmuth’s rag. I always appreciated that, probably more than she knew.

Francene, by all appearances, was a real badger. In televised obituaries over the weekend, she was characterized as “tough but fair.” What a shame, I’m sure she would say, that a journalist’s toughness and fairness are standout characteristics anymore. That should be self-evident.

But what most people didn’t know about Francene, and what I saw for the first time in focus that night last month when we shared a couple drinks, was the sincerity of her humanness. We spent a lot of time talking about happiness, about how far away it seems but for personal parades of passing moments. She told me she wished she could still be a professional dancer, travel with stage shows like she had when she was younger. She said she wanted “what every little girl does”: the dream family, the security that comes with it, the happiness that it might usher into what so often seems like our tiny little lives. I tried to assure her it would come.

What do I know? Francene was the one with the foresight, the perspective for which we should only hope to strive.

I found this quote Friday night, when I was re-reading Sara Havens’ July 9, 2008 LEO Weekly profile of the queen herself:

“One of my worst traits is that I don’t have a lot of patience,” Francene said. “Part of that is because I don’t know when everything ends. And I don’t want it to end before I get everything I want to do accomplished.

“What I realized is that I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid to be dying and realize I haven’t done everything I wanted to do. That’s the only thing that really scares me.”

I hope, my friend, that you didn’t spend your last week afraid.


Stephen George is past editor of LEO Weekly. He is now the editor of The City Paper in Nashville, Tenn.