A friend of a friend-Tony Antonio and Ken Kitts-February 24

One thing I have learned is that good friends have other good friends. This is a series of stories about “friends of my friends”. The post below is the story for February 24, 2015.

My goal in 2015 is to learn or get re-acquainted with 365 people and doing a daily post on the “the friend of a friend” is helping me get closer to my goal.

Today is going to be a bittersweet day for me. One of my colleagues and friends Dr. Ken Kitts our Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs is in his last week of work at UNC Pembroke. Next month he will become the President at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama. I am really excited for him and so is my wife Mira who is a former student at UNA. Mira keeps getting updates from her former sorority sisters who are just so excited to have Ken assume that leadership role at their alma mater.

Each day this week will mark the last time I get to interact with Ken in various professional capacities. For instance this morning at 5:30 a.m. we were on a conference call with our Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Safety Travis Bryant to discuss the winter weather impact on our university. Later today at 10 a.m. it will be our weekly meeting with the Chancellor and his cabinet. Finally tonight it will be a farewell dinner with his lovely wife Dena at the Chancellor’s Residence. Each of these interactions has caused me to reflect on what an impact he has on our students, faculty, staff and university.

Ken came to UNC Pembroke in April 2011 after the university went thru a search that took a lot of different twists and turns. A Waynesville, N.C., native, Ken earned Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees at Appalachian State University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of South Carolina. He also received certificates from Harvard University’s Institute for Educational Management and South Carolina’s Executive Institute. In his current position, he served as the associate provost for Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management at Francis Marion University (FMU) in Florence, S.C.

Ken worked most of his entire professional career at Francis Marion University beginning as an instructor in 1987. He earned tenure in 1999 and became a full professor in 2005. After serving as chair of the Department of Political Science, History and Geography, Dr. Kitts took the position of associate provost and director of graduate programs in 2002.

When UNCP did the search for provost in 2010 I had shared information I had received from two great friends that worked at Francis Marion what a great leader Ken was. Those two friends were Murray Hartzler FMU’s Director of Athletics and Dr. Barry O’Brien the dean of the school of business at FMU. Barry is a UNCP grad and former men’s basketball player. His brother Jim O’Brien coached in the NBA for the 76er’s and Pacers.

Murray and Barry both said the same thing that Ken was ready to be a provost. He was a focused and direct leader who achieved a lot on behalf of Francis Marion. For whatever reason Ken did not make the search committee’s top twenty list. When the top candidates did come to campus in December of 2010 there was consensus that none of the finalist fit the bill. Our Chancellor Kyle Carter asked his cabinet for feedback and I shared with him what I had been told by my contacts. I also pointed out that Ken was a finalist at Armstrong Atlantic for the provost position and Dr. Carter immediately contacted him.  The Chancellor knew after his first meeting that Ken was an outstanding leader and he was approved in February by the UNCP BOT and began work 6 weeks later.

Shortly after Ken arrived we got talking about his hometown being Waynesville located in the western part of North Carolina in the mountains. I lived in Cullowhee, NC from 1980-1985. Cullowhee is also in the mountains in adjacent Jackson County.

One day early in Ken’s tenure as provost we talked about road racing and I shared with him my knowledge about a long-standing 8K race called the Maggie Valley Moonlight Run that was run just outside of Waynesville, NC. It was then that Ken told me a story that was not only funny but had a great leadership lesson in it. Ken knew a student from his high school named Tony Antonio who ran in that race.

The Friend-KEN KITTS second picture with his wife Dena

Ken KittsKen and Dena Kitts

The Friend of the Friend-TONY ANTONIO and the Maggie Valley Moonlight Race


Tony Antonio and the Maggie Valley Moonlight Race

In the late 1970’s a race began in the tiny town of Maggie Valley, NC called the Maggie Valley Moonlight Race. It was always held in late August and the distance was 8K(4.8 mile for those that are metrically challenged). In 1980 I became the cross-country coach at Western Carolina which was located about 20 miles from Maggie Valley. When we started practice in August a couple of my runners wanted to participate in the run so we gave them permission to go and compete as individuals.

This race has had some interruptions over the last decade but it will be run again for the 34th time in 2015 on Saturday August 22, 2015. It was a race in the early 1980’s that my friend Ken Kitts shared with me. Ken has a friend named Greg Cook who keeps up with all things involving the local high school in Waynesville, NC. That high school is Tuscola HS and they had a track and field runner enrolled named Tony Antonio.

In 1979 ESPN came on the air billing itself as the 24 hour sports station. Well they needed programming to fill in all those hours. The ESPN of the 1980’s was different from today. ESPN did not have MLB-NFL-NBA games to air they had to show grass root sports like bowling-college basketball-and running. In 1982 they decided to cover the popular Maggie Valley Moonlight Road Race. It was a big event in Haywood County NC to have a sporting event aired on National TV. Tony Antonio was not going to pass up this chance to grab the spotlight.


The race drew over 2300 runners from around the country especially Kenya runners who were there for Maggie Valley’s cash prizes. The ESPN announcers had their cheat sheets on the top runners and profiled them before the start of the 8K. One of those non-profiled runners was Tony Antonio sporting his Tuscola HS singlet and when the gun went off he took off in a dead sprint. The ESPN crew had the camera poised for the leaders and it was one Tony Antonio in the lead.

The announcers scrambled for details on him but they didn’t have to go too long because after about 1000 yards Tony Antonio was spent and the runners from Kenya took over. The race is run on what called an out and back course. You leave the starting line and run 2.4 miles and turn around and head back to the finish line. Well on the way back to the finish line some 1000 yards from the end of the race the camera pans in on a pack of 5 Kenya runners all getting ready to make their move. In that one moment on the screen if you look real close you will see Tony Antonio on the shoulder of the road doubled over still throwing up. Tony Antonio was that bright supernova that had its one shining moment and now had crashed and burned.

I like to think of my friend Ken Kitts as the complete opposite of Tony Antonio he is slow, steady, and focused. He has no interest in being in the limelight of ESPN.

I have always found it funny that leaders like Ken Kitts often get to the finish line ahead of those that are only looking for the notoriety.

Proud to call you a friend Ken Kitts.


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