He met her at his job exchanging students’ dirty sheets for clean linen at Cowell College. He was a 6-foot-4 sociology major with long sideburns and tousled dark hair. She was a slender blond freshman studying anthropology with a peaceful way about her that he admired.
Above: An envelope labeled “private” and taped in the back of a poetry notebook held a nearly forgotten treasure. Photo: Carolyn LagattutaSo when he saw her across the room at one of the college’s semi-regular waltzes, he asked her to dance and she agreed.
His name was Rich Vicenti and hers was Alesa Smith. The year was 1970.
Over the next months, he pursued her even though she had a boyfriend. He took her to a Julian Bream concert and kissed
her on the college steps. He lowered a note from an upper floor of Beard House where she lived, asking her to change her mind and be with him.
To her, he was the handsome RA, a big man on campus who’d help found the free bus system that still serves UC Santa Cruz today.
“I really liked him. I was torn,” said Alesa (Cowell ‘74, anthropology), whose last name is now Lightbourne.
But loyalty to her boyfriend won out, and on a February day in 1971, she sketched an image of a check in blue ink on the
back of a piece of scrap paper and handed it to him.
“Cowell College Love Bank,” read the block letters across the top of the note. “Pay to the order of Richard Vicenti, love of undetermined amount to be cashed at unknown date in the future.”
“Sadly, it was a nice form of a Dear John letter,” said Vicenti (Cowell ‘72, sociology). He put the note in an envelope, marked it “Private” and “Hands Off!!” and taped it in the back of his poetry notebook.
He graduated in 1972 and she followed two years later. Both went on to separate lives.
Vicenti set up transit systems around the Bay Area, got married, received an M.B.A. in business at Stanford, and began working as a chief financial officer at high-tech companies in Silicon Valley.
She went to Jamaica, married a Jamaican man, and taught school there. Later, she taught in the Virgin Islands and Saudi Arabia. She divorced, came back to the U.S. for her master’s in creative writing, started work as a corporate writer, raised three boys, and eventually became a college professor in the Seattle area.
In late 2009, on a challenge from one of her grown sons to chase the thing she loved rather than stay in her safe world, Lightbourne quit her job, rented out her house, and was soon in Kurdish Iraq teaching middle school.
There, she was befriended by a widow and her daughter who lived in a small, cement- block house in a village outside of Erbil. Lightbourne ate with them, stayed over at their house on visits, went to weddings and funerals. But, she said, it was hard for her to reconcile the villagers’ kindness with the tribal customs they practiced: female circumcision and honor killings of women who’d shamed their families in some way.
“It was a very difficult time,” she said.
Social media spark
While in Iraq, she saw a post on Vicenti’s Facebook page. “We’re praying for a speedy recovery,” it read.
Concerned, Lightbourne emailed Vicenti, who said he was recuperating from open-heart surgery and was fine. Both were now single.
They began to Skype and email. One message from Vicenti had an attachment: a photo of her “check” for love at a future date.
“I looked at it and the handwriting looked familiar,” said Lightbourne. “Then it clicked and I started screaming and laughing. I’d totally forgotten that crazy rain check. Basically, he said, ‘OK girl, it’s time to pay up.’”
“I’d hung onto the note for 39 years,” Vicenti said. “Smart move. She was always a special person to me.”
They decided to meet at the Istanbul airport and travel through Turkey and Greece when her teaching duties were over.
“When we met in person, he apologized that he was older and not as skinny as before. And I said, ‘But you’re still Rich Vicenti,’” Lightbourne remembered.
A natural homecoming
On Vicenti’s 65th birthday, while on a bicycling trip in Tuscany, Lightbourne proposed to him over terrible pizza and a fine bottle of wine.
“Karmically, I owed him,” she said with a laugh.
Today, they share a light-filled condominium overlooking a spread of green pasture near Santa Cruz’s Small Craft Harbor. He’s 67 and she’s 65.
They’ve traveled to 17 countries, have five kids and five grandchildren between them, and Lightbourne has just published a novel based on her experiences in Iraq, titled The Kurdish Bike.
“It wasn’t like the falling in love that you have with someone you don’t know,” Lightbourne said of their romance. “This was relaxing, natural. A homecoming.”
She put her hand on his.
“We just fit.”
To hear a companion audio piece on this story, visit soundcloud.com/ucsantacruz/sets/storycruz.
Lightbourne’s novel, The Kurdish Bike, is available on Amazon.