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Irwin looks back on 10 years in town

By Staff | Jun 18, 2010

Catherine Irwin Photo by Michael Theis

Just a mention of the word “passion” conjures up thoughts and emotions that send brain waves into overdrive. Passion comes with a great set of synonyms too like enthusiasm, zeal, fervor all “how tos” in life’s little instruction book.

And Catherine Irwin personifies every single word. The elegant Catherine appears like one who would be most at home lounging around a pool or shopping, but appearances, as we all know, can be deceiving.

Catherine Elizabeth Tyson was born in Batavia, Illinois, the second of Margaret and William Tyson’s five children. William Tyson was a salesman, he traveled all over the mid-west and he took his family with him. They moved three times in Catherine’s senior year of high school alone. For most teenagers this would be a nightmare, Catherine took it as an opportunity to make friends quickly and she has spent a lifetime perfecting that talent.

“The one constant in my life was my grandfather’s farm in Onekama, Michigan.” Catherine said. “Every summer, right after school let out we’d go to the farm and wouldn’t come back til September. Grandpa’s farm was forty eight acres of cherry trees and chickens. I lived for the summers.”

Early on Catherine showed a streak of professional savvy that would do Dale Carnegie proud. “I was 15 when I got my first real job. There was a coffee shop with a soda fountain in the town where we were living. I really wanted a job there but the owner wouldn’t hire me because I was too young. So I just started bringing people into the shop all the time. Friends, family, strangersI just kept bringing them in for ice cream.”

The little marketing genius got the job.

After graduating at the age of 17 from East High in Grand Rapids, Catherine entered Grand Rapids College. Half way through her sophomore year she married John Irwin. John was attending Kent State University in Ohio so Catherine dropped out of GRC and went to work to put her new husband through college. John graduated, got a job in Washington, DC, and the young couple moved east.

In the early ’60s, Betty Friedan, author of a runaway best seller The Feminine Mystique, co-founded the National Organization of Women. Catherine Irwin joined the Washington Metropolitan Area NOW chapter and three years later was elected president. Her’s was a real passion for social justice and immediately took on local TV stations, NBC (WRC) in particular, for violating the FCC requirement to meet the needs of the community. NOW set out to prove that WRC’s on-air broadcasting was being unfairly discriminatory against the majority of the community: women.

Under Catherine’s leadership NOW proved its case and the proof led to change.

NOW then took on the National Park Service for employment discrimination on behalf of overqualified African American women who were being denied jobs as park service rangers. NOW came up with a catchy little unprintable slogan (You’ll have to ask her.) for the campaign that immediately caught on, garnered media attention, made waves and led to change.

Catherine gained national recognition for her talent and leadership and was elected to NOW’s Board of Directors. In 1971 she was elected NOW Vice President for Public Relations and one of the women responsible for making the organization an advocacy powerhouse. Three years later Catherine founded Speaking of Women, Inc. an all volunteer organization committed to women’s issues. Speaking of Women joined with NOW and formed the National Association of Women Business Owners.

It was in that year that Catherine met Richard Stephan. Her marriage to John Irwin was long over. Richard Stephan, a former Presbyterian minister, was doing social service work in a health clinic when the two like-minded, socially conscience advocates met and fell into lasting love. “When Richard and I married I got this wonderful man and a ready made family.” Sue, Tom and Kate Stephan came into Catherine’s life with their dad in 1976.

Today, Katie lives in Arlington, Tom and Diane Stephan live in Germany, and Sue and Mike Yost in Shepherdstown. Catherine has three grandsons: Ben Yost who is 10, and Nicolas and Max Stephan, ages 9 and 5.

After NOW, Catherine was a national fellow with the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation in the Join Together program. Join Together was designed to assist communities in drug and alcohol prevention programs.

In 1984 Catherine joined the most prestigious theater group in Washington, DC, Arena Stage and for the next fifteen years worked in the company of Zelda Fitchlander, and other theater greats, managing Arena’s outreach program and as director of development. The first – working with special needs audiences; the second – raising over nine million dollars. .

In 1999 Catherine and Richard moved to Shepherdstown and bought a home in Willowdale. While Richard pursued his passions as an amateur astronomist, expert cook, and avid sailor (when they could manage to get away to their home on the lake in Michigan,) Catherine went to work for Ed Herendeen and CATF. They settled into small town life, amassed a legion of friends and “Richard did 100% of the cooking – breakfast, lunch, dinner, everything. He was a great cook. He baked wonderful pies.”

Five years ago, Richard died of IPF(pulmonary fibrosis.) The week he died Catherine got a call from her doctor saying her tests had come back positive for breast cancer. She still seems shocked at the sound of her own words. She went on to say why she loves Shepherdstown and the people who live here. “I had seven weeks of radiation and never had to drive myself to an appointment once. I didn’t have to ask. Friends just stepped up and volunteered. Ed and Sue (Herendeen) were absolutely wonderful to me.” Today, Catherine is cancer-free but the memory of the loving support of a caring community will be with her forever.

After Richard became ill, he and Catherine sold their Willowdale home to Sue and Mike and moved to Cress Creek. Having the children so close was, and is, a great gift. Today, Ben Yost, now ten, comes over to hang out with his grandmother often but, as it always is when they grow up, it’s never often enough.

Catherine is the Director of Casting the Future and leads the Endowment Campaign at CATF. Over the years she has designed cost cutting tech systems, won matching grant money from NEA, designed a teacher training institute for WV high school teachers and developed a partnership with the Appalachian Education Initiative to find funding. And she helped develop the 10 for 10 Campaign, securing 10 gifts of $10K each to celebrate CATF’s tenth anniversary. Catherine loves CATF, the fact and promise of it and its people, and her admiration for Ed Herendeen knows no bounds. “Ed’s a great director. He knows how to get to the soul of a play and he listens to his actors.”

Her love of CATF notwithstanding, Catherine plans to retire in October. It’s been twenty years and she thinks it’s time. I’m not sure anyone will agree with her. If this happens though filling her days won’t be a problem. Today, she also serves as a member of the Shepherd University comprehensive campaign management team. She is very committed to Shepherd and the Richard L. Stephen astronomy department endowment, she established in memory of her husband. She’s a member of the Presbyterian Church, on the boards of CATF, ACFF, and past president of Rotary. She’s a member of the Gateway New Economy Council, alumni of the 2001 Class of Leadership West Virginia and in about two months will be a Certified Emergency Resource Team member of the Homeland Security Jefferson County, WV program.

Vacation time means going to her home in Michigan. It’s a place that brings back the best of her childhood on her grandpa’s farm, and grown-up memories of sailing with Richard. Reading, movies, a really great rescue kitten named “Kat” and her family round out her 35 hour days. And she’s learning to cook.

Catherine Irwin has lived her life devoted to making the world a fairer, richer, more beautiful place. She has attacked each challenge with passion, enthusiasm, and a brilliant analytical mind. And for twenty years her world has been centered in Shepherdstown. How lucky can one town get?