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Former Aspiring Comic, Now NKU Board Chair, Still Not Taking Self Too Seriously

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Roger Auge II.

Here is an example of Dennis Repenning’s sense of humor. Orson Welles need not move over. Imagine this radio script:

“So on a Friday night on Cincinnati AM radio, Dr. J. David “Scram” Davis, the Bluegrass Secretary of Transportation, announces a blockbuster: a brand new bridge — a new concept in bridges — a five-floor multipurpose blockbuster structure — will soon be built…on the site of the venerable Roebling Suspension Bridge… which must be torn down to make way for the future.  A Welcome Center where visitors to the Commonwealth are greeted with free shots of Kentucky bourbon! Welcome to the Commonwealth!   A shopping mall for parents on one level, and the kids dangle a fishing line into the Ohio River on another floor!

“A steep price tag, no doubt.  But, as Dr. Davis explained, it would be funded by a special tax on Kentucky’s seniors, by automatic tax deductions, right from their Social Security checks!   ‘A great opportunity for our seniors to give back,’ Davis explained, ‘and  they’ll never feel a thing!’”

Dr. Scram Davis, also known as, Dennis Repenning, doing a Rube Goldberg comedy bit, puts this one over on a listening audience. The station can’t field all the calls in protest.

 “We’d gotten to know a lot of the radio people in town, so they’d put up with our nonsense from time to time,” Repenning said.

This is how Repenning demonstrates a wry, dry sense of humor, telling stories about himself as a comic, as a WKRC-TV reporter, as a well-respected tax lawyer, and most recently as chair of the Board of Regents at Northern Kentucky University.

“I don’t try to be funny,” he said. “But I don’t try to take myself too seriously either.”

This dry-humored, unassuming Dennis Repenning is the same Dennis Repenning who is a sought-after tax lawyer, whose hero in life is the cartoonist Rube Goldberg, the one who created, with his pen, elaborate contraptions to do simple tasks. To some, “a Rube Goldberg” today is one who makes simple tasks far more complicated than they deserve. Some people do that all the time.

“I don’t see it that way,” Repenning said. “I see him pointing out how silly making mountains out of mole hills really is.”

In fact, as a problem solver, “I want the simplest, most straight-forward path to solution.”

This is the same Dennis Repenning who recently served as a special justice on the Kentucky Supreme Court; the same one who recently became chairman of the Northern Kentucky University Board of Regents; and, the same who is an active member of the Kentucky Council for Postsecondary Education.

Now 65, his grown children, Ben, 40, Heather, 37, and Sarah, 34,remain close. Ben lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and is a physician; Heather is director of external affairs for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; and Sara is a tax specialist for the Internal Revenue Service, lives in Cincinnati.

And this is the same Dennis Repenning who is a master gardener, but that’s for a bit later.

First, some background: Dennis and Donna Bachman Repenning have been married 10 years and live in Richwood, in a roomy house up a steep curving driveway off a two-lane blacktop Boone County road you need directions to find.

Dennis’s black four-door sedan sits in the driveway sporting a vanity NKU license plate DIV-1. Large maples, a stone walkway and a bride’s dream of flowers symphonize the backyard. A large deck off the kitchen and living room provide comforts of woods and wilds in Boone County. Donna found the place; Dennis went for it. After some renovation, the place is home.

From his comfortable deck, this Dennis acknowledges that Northern Kentucky University’s sports teams are experiencing the uncomfortable growing pains of entering college sports’ Division 1. This year, the competition in basketball included heavy hitters – UK, North Carolina, and Purdue. San Diego, Navy, Hampton and Morehead State visit.

Repenning smiles wryly because simply playing sports at this level is a big jump for NKU, with just over 12,000 students and in its 44th year as an educational institution.

This Dennis is no dummy.

Repenning is in the chairman’s seat as NKU grows in D-1, rattles the bushes for new students, builds more dormitories, determines what new academic building to build next, while managing a growing FM radio station, a high-powered theatre department, and colleges of law, education and business. In addition, the Steely Library has adventuresome growth plans that, in today’s high-tech world, only enable the institution to keep pace.

“It’s an honor to be on NKU’s Board of Regents because I am surrounded with smart and engaged folks,” he said. “NKU is facing financial challenges, as are public universities across the nation. Public funding for higher education has decreased every year for the last several years. Kentucky has done a great job managing its resources since the great recession five years ago, but the money just isn’t there.

“This is a systemic problem: as the state cuts higher education money, student tuition rates go up. This isn’t sustainable. The board and the president understand that higher education is an expensive proposition, but it is critical to the future of the country and to the functioning of a democracy.

“How to manage increasing costs, entertain a variety of educational demands, and accommodate all the technological changes underway in the world today, is the challenge we face.”

This is the same Dennis Repenning who, now involved in mountains of serious adult stuff such as the future of NKU, once held ambitions in the 1980s to be a standup comic. He started and ran Rube Goldberg’s Comedy Club March 4, 1987, on the second floor of Mick Noll’s Covington Haus on Sixth Street in Covington. The place is now Tickets.

“Until I found how absolutely difficult and demanding that profession is,” Repenning said recently over onion soup and a roast beef sandwich at Panera Bread in Crestview Hills.

Watching Repenning, a observer notices waves of seriousness ebb and flow when he talks about his role as NKU regents’ board chair, waves of joy as he describes his three grown children, and waves of self-deprecating dry humor as he describes how he “began to grow up at around age 45.”

Now-retired Cincinnati Post reporter Greg Paeth, at the time, wrote: “If the club opening doesn’t strike you as a watershed moment in the history of Western Civilization…” The first week of operation the club conducted a public service campaign. The campaign, bitingly devoted to Dental Plaque and Tartar Awareness Week, Repenning pushed for seven entire days.

Under thinning blonde-gray hair and through blue-gray eyes, 27 years later, Repenning acknowledges that dabbling in standup and honoring Rube Goldberg, fulfilled some of his dreams.

“I mean, I wasn’t a very good standup, but I learned how difficult it is to perfect a standup routine. You have to have the patience to do the same thing, exactly, time after time, and make it look brand new.”

Prior to opening the club, Repenning earned his law degree from Salmon P. Chase Law School at Northern Kentucky University. He prefers to “be the behind the scenes guy.”

In some ways, Repenning is similar to a coffee table book, you learn more with every page you turn. For example, not long after he and Donna moved to their woods-surrounded home in Richwood, the couple thought the backyard needed some landscaping: stone patios, a stone fire pit, and stone walls for plants, stone sidewalks, and a handful of bird feeders.

“I always liked to garden,” Repenning says.

“And the back yard needed some work,” Donna added, her words emphasizing understatement.

So, Repenning became a Master Gardner through the Kentucky Agricultural Extension Service in Boone County. And he hauled stone from every construction site and creek he could reach to the backyard.

“I thought I might need back surgery,” he says.

Paeth, who lives in the Seminary Square neighborhood of Covington, reported for The Kentucky Post beginning in 1974 and retired from the Cincinnati Post when it closed in 2007.

“I was wrestling with changing careers, but Dennis was far more adventuresome with his career than I was with mine, ” Paeth said.

Paeth recalled that Repenning had worked as a night-side and weekend reporter, writer and producer for WKRC-TV in Cincinnati in the early ’70s. One of his weekend assignments called for an interview with Dr. Albert Sabin, the Cincinnati physician who developed the oral polio vaccine. Repenning conceded that he was ill-prepared for the interview, which became obvious to Sabin after a minute or two.

Repenning said Sabin asked for his steno pad, jotted down a few key questions and handed it back to him. “I was just a kid and he was doing everything he could to be helpful. It turned out to be a very good interview. I wish I still had that notebook,” Repenning said.

A footnote to Dennis’ varied careers connects him to Pete Rose. While honing his journalistic skills, he contacted Cincinnati Magazine with a proposal to profile Leo Rolfes, the IRS tax examiner who headed the investigation of Pete Rose, the Cincinnati Reds baseball icon, convicted of tax evasion for failing to report income from autograph shows and gambling. Repenning’s carefully researched reportage wound up as the cover story for the magazine in September, 1990, and later won the top award for personality profiles from the Cincinnati chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“I’m not sure where I go next, said Repenning meditatively. He lists obtaining a Masters Degree in Public History and continuing to serve NKU either on the board or some other capacity, as future possibilities.

“I do think we need to continue to educate our people because knowledge must fuel our democracy. So I hope I can be a good citizen and age nicely.”

This Dennis faces the future with a wry, dry smile.
Roger Auge II is a former reporter with The Kentucky Post and now a freelance writer and instructor at Gateway Community and Technical College.