We’ve lost a lot of well-loved celebrities in 2016, but over the past week my community lost a wonderful lady whose name wasn’t nearly as widespread, but who had an impact on countless souls during her long and colorful life.
Her name was Lynn Renau and my family and I met her at Locust Grove — one of the most important historic sites in the South — where we all volunteered together. She was one of my dearest friends at the Grove. However, I’m not sure I can forgive her for passing so suddenly because we were still in the middle of a 4-year match of verbal ping-pong over several important topics in history — and I don’t think I was winning.
Lynn was one of the most active, passionate, and sometimes even combative tour guides at Locust Grove. I’ve never known anyone who felt as strongly about history as Lynn — and she loved to figure out what part of history you were most interested in and then engage you in a repartee about it.
If you were lucky enough to get Lynn as your docent on a Locust Grove tour — and many were because she tirelessly volunteered so many hours every week — then you got a customized stroll through the past because she always started her tours by asking why you came and what you wanted to learn.
Still, many people never knew how accomplished Lynn was as a historian. She served for many years as the curator of the Kentucky Derby Museum and later as the curator of the legendary Filson Historical Society, before spending the last several years offering her time for free at Locust Grove.
She once told me about the time she was writing a history of the Kentucky Derby and one of the leaders of Churchill Downs told her that no one would want to read a book about the great race if it was written by a woman. She promptly resigned and went off and published the book anyway. (The famous track later reconciled with her and honored her with the Isaac Murphy Award.)
Lynn authored four books and numerous articles for encyclopedias and magazines, but what I’ll remember most about her was her off-beat sense of humor. She and I shared a lot of laughs over the last few years. She had an extremely dry wit — so dry that there were times she would say shocking things and people didn’t always realize she was joking.
I remember when I told her about a book of my own I was working on a few years ago. She turned and looked me straight in the eyes. “You’re writing a book?” she said. “God help us all.”
There were some audible gasps from people nearby, but I doubled over in laughter and just shook my head. That was Lynn.
Despite her sometimes gruff exterior, she also quietly did a lot of nice things for many different people. And, she was constantly open to new ideas. She had one of the best — and rarest — qualities that any great historian must have: the ability to change her mind when presented with newer or better information.
The past couple days I’ve been re-reading a book by Lynn’s favorite author, David Hackett Fischer, in honor of Lynn and because I’ve been thinking about her. She loved Fischer because of his bold and creative approach to well-worn topics in history. The same can be said for Lynn. She was an incredibly original thinker, and I’m going to sorely miss her telling me about her latest theories and discoveries.
I took the cover photo to this article on October 30 at Locust Grove. It was one of dozens I took that day, and I’m glad I was able to go back and dig it up because it shows Lynn exactly how I remember her: deeply engaged in a topic she cared about at a place she loved.
Rest in peace, Lynn Renau (October 17, 1942—December 22, 2016).