Georgia Bulldogs in Cortona, Italy

Published 6:17 pm Monday, July 22, 2019

CORTONA, Italy – This is a place with a deep and abiding Georgia connection where you are as likely to be greeted with a mellow and accented, “Hi y’all,” as you would in Athens on a fall Saturday when the Bulldogs are hosting a consequential game between the hedges.

It was the dream of one man, John D. Kehoe, that art students enrolled at the University of Georgia would have an opportunity to “study abroad” and identify with the Italian Renaissance, its history and the magnificence of the artists and sculptors whose legacy brings millions of visitors to Italy each year.

At the outset Kehoe chose to separate from the many similar programs in Rome, which could not shuck the drug culture and inhibiting social scene. Visit Rome and take in its history and Roman culture, but live amongst the people was his objective. Finding a place in the country became his goal. Kehoe’s keen foresight would set the Georgia program apart.

He could not have chosen a more receptive community which now takes as much pride in Georgia and Athens as the nation’s oldest chartered state university takes in Cortona. As you drive up to the entrance to the city, there is a big street banner which greets all visitors with a welcome and a reference to the 50th anniversary of the UGA/Cortona alliance. The “John D. Kehoe Cortona Center, University of Georgia,” is the official name of the Cortona campus, a fitting tribute to the vision, commitment and energy of Kehoe, who was delighted that the students simply referred to the multi-purpose facility as, “The John.” 

Today, Cortona is the envy of many college and universities in the U. S. Some more well-heeled institutions even tried to pry Georgia from the walled Tuscan city in the early years with financial promise that exceeded anything UGA could offer — but because of the integrity and loyalty of Jack Kehoe, Cortona’s local gentry remained steadfast in its commitment to UGA.

I can remember in the early seventies when Kehoe was cobbling together enough assets to support his passion and his dream, he sent a story my way as editor of the Georgia football program about a touch football game between the students of Georgia and Georgia Tech. (Jack was always allowing students from other institutions to experience the city he loved and adored.) At the time, I felt it was something of a stretch to use such a piece in the Bulldogs in-house publication. But, at the same time, I could see Kehoe’s objective when any recognition of any sort would be a boost to his mission. The story ran, and the editor gained a warm friendship which has led to a string of visits to Tuscany. We have stayed in the flat he and his wife, Marilyn, purchased. It became their summer address. They spent considerable time here every year. Their kids came to know Cortona as their second home.

Before the grandeur of Rome there was the fabled era of the Etruscans. Spend time in Cortona and you bump up against such an ancient past you are reminded that even with a generous bite of history, you, nonetheless have a smorgasbord awaiting. If you are an aficionado of history, you can’t get enough when you come to Italy which is also a place to enjoy one’s self. A glass of Chianti or Brunello is perfect for the intake of history. There is an abundance of history here along with an unending supply of awe-inspiring vino.

One should never come to Cortona without a book. And enough cash to enjoy a bottle of wine at lunch and another at dinner. There is always an ambience that makes you relax, which means there is no stress unless you are stricken with a heat wave in summer as has been the case lately. There is little humidity, however, and the mornings and evenings are as comfortable as you could want. 

Having the good fortune of coming this way a few times, I recently found my way down to the park where there is a piece of sculpture, created by Jack Kehoe, which reflects his love, feelings and commitment to Cortona.

Jack, who passed away in 2016, dreamed of what Cortona has become. In the beginning there was no budget, but today the program is flourishing with countless friends and benefactors. The university owns property here, a satellite campus which gets the highest of marks. With Enza Valente hosting friends and visitors on a recent tour, it was easy to reflect back to the time when the UGA/Cortona campus of today was an “old folks” home. One institution evolved into another, today’s being focused on youth.

I can recall a scene from the past that is a reminder of Jack Kehoe’s influence. In a garden, adjacent to the former facility, a melancholy gray-haired Italian woman, who appeared to be 90 or more, was smiling as a Georgia art-student-coed was holding her hand and comforting her. Cortona has always been a place for selfless feeling and a helping hand.

Jack Kehoe wanted the Georgia initiative and students to be an integral part of the Cortona community. After 50 years, a visit here confirms that he eminently succeeded, making the University of Georgia studies-abroad program something of a Renaissance itself.