This is the hardest thing I have ever had to write. And please bear with me because it won’t be enough.
On Friday, March 3, our beloved editor, mentor, and friend Irene Nolan passed away after a brief stay at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.
I know that everyone reading this is sharing the heartbreak that all of us at Island Free Press – contributors, advertisers, and her 20-year collaborator, friend, and IFP co-founder Donna Barnett - are feeling right now.
And I wish I was a better writer and had the ability to convey how important Irene was to everyone on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.
But honestly, I can’t think of anyone who is talented enough to accurately emphasize what Irene meant to all of us, except maybe Irene herself – and she was always far too modest (and too busy) to toot her own horn.
So instead, we need to start the way Irene would want, which is by emphasizing that the Island Free Press will continue.
Irene was passionate about maintaining the IFP, continually providing the best news source possible for our islands, and ensuring that the tradition of creating an exceptional paper lived on.
She often talked about how important the Island Free Press was for Hatteras and Ocracoke – to me, and I think to everyone else, too.
She recognized that it was her job – and ours – to distribute essential information that mattered for our residents and for our longtime visitors, whether it was live updates during a hurricane, years of struggling for a new bridge and better beach access, or just community events and features that enriched people’s discovery of our home.
This is why she wrote literally thousands of articles, worked at all hours of the day and night (especially during storms) and why she justifiably expected the best out of all of us.
And we can think of no better honor than to make sure the project she started for the sole betterment of our community thrives for decades to come.
As such, all of us at Island Free Press promise that we will do our very best to ensure that our local paper reaches her high standards, because that is what Irene would expect, and that is what she and you deserve.
At this point, I know Irene would tell me to focus on the news and on the importance of the paper and not on her, but I have to diverge from her instruction and make a feeble effort to try and explain Irene’s significance.
And the best way I can think of to do that is to use a few of my words, and more importantly, a few of hers.
In December, I had a rare opportunity to thank and acknowledge Irene in print as an introduction to my inaugural blog entry for the Island Free Press. She didn’t know this, but this intro was something I had worked on for quite a while.
Snippets of it were from an email I had planned to send her years ago outlining how much her mentorship meant to me, parts were from a potential column in the same vein, and the rest took me quite some time to piece together – much more time than the actual blog itself.
I’d like to share that intro now:
“I want to start with a brief disclaimer. This is my first blog for the Island Free Press as a staff writer, and I fully recognize that I have big shoes to fill.
Anyone who knows our editor knows that she is vital to our local media. She is a genuine gift that somehow landed on Hatteras Island, and who has made our community – and our access to essential information -- infinitely better.
Irene led her staff to a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 when she was managing editor of the Louisville, Ky.-based Courier-Journal. Irene is also the person who ran the now defunct Island Breeze for a couple of decades, sculpting it into one of the initial legitimate news sources for our islands, years before the Internet was a “thing.”
And once the Internet was a “thing,” Irene broke new ground by starting the fabulous publication you are reading at this very moment – the Island Free Press – which, in my not-so-humble opinion, was a revolutionary move that single-handedly made our local media much better than it ever was before. Other online newspapers followed, to be sure, which is a great thing indeed, but Irene was the first.
And, as usual, she set the bar.
This is the reason why I followed Irene when she launched her new Island Free Press endeavor almost a decade ago, and which is why I have been actively trying to write for her since I graduated college in 2002.
I’m honored to write for the IFP, and perhaps share a little info or a different perspective via a few blogs. I just wanted to make it clear – from the onset – that my voice is just a complementary voice to the editor's.
But, in my defense, I also have the best mentor you could seriously hope for. And my guess is, being the astute editor that she is, Irene may very well delete the first few paragraphs I’ve just written because they are in no way newsworthy.”
I will be forever grateful that I dug that old “Thank you” email out of my draft folder and at least attempted to let Irene know how important she is to me. And I was amazed that she kept it in the blog article, because as I said, Irene was never about herself – she was about the importance of news for the community.
Re-reading this now, I still feel like it doesn’t do Irene justice. Because how can you possibly articulate her influence?
In my mind – and in many, many others’ minds – Irene was legendary. She was an anomaly. Her talent, work ethic, and brilliance in both writing and editing was something I have never seen before and don’t think I will ever see again.
Many of us put people we admire on pedestals but Irene genuinely deserved to be there, because just by being herself, she was continually inspiring and towered above us all.
In any case, I had no idea that she had added a post script to the article until after it was published, and her own words outline how dedicated, modest, and community-oriented Irene was better than I ever could.
Here is what she wrote in response:
“I appreciate all the nice things [Joy] said about me -- though she is right that I trimmed her prose a bit. I left what I did to focus not on me but on the importance of locally produced community news and to remind our island small businesses that we are a small business also and that we need their support to keep this newspaper going forward.
As for her noting that she has big shoes to fill, I will say that my shoes are big only because they are stretched out from many years of wear and tear in this business.”
I’ve never disagreed with any of Irene’s comments or edits in the 15 years that I’ve had the privilege to work with her, and it seems unfair to start now, but I have to add one correction to her above statement.
No, Irene. Your shoes aren’t big because of “wear and tear.” Your shoes are big because you are and will always be larger than life.
Irene, we are so damn lucky that you fell into our lives. There are no words to express how missed you will be. But we will do our best to honor what you have created.
Thank you for being you, and for being exceptional, and for giving us a pure example of what it looks like when you use your incredible talents to make your community a better place.
You are irreplaceable. And you were such a gift to all of us.
Having such an amazing person in your life – whether you are a dumb writer like me or a frequent reader of the Island Free Press – is such a double-edged sword. Because you benefit from that incredible knowledge and insight when it’s present, but you also realize how much you have lost when that person is gone.
But Irene will never be truly gone from the islands, because larger than life people never are.
She is the founder and backbone of the Island Free Press, and always will be present in everything we publish going forward. Everything.
And we do look forward to making sure the Island Free Press becomes a testament to what she started. Donna, myself, and other contributors were both grieving and working in the past few days, because… I don’t know. I suppose we all knew that Irene would be upset if there was a lapse in the news feed, and so we all proceeded accordingly.
Please, continue to follow us. And comment. And submit your events and stories. The Island Free Press was Irene’s brilliantly realized dream, and it’s up to all of us to make sure it remains an island institution.
Personally, I wish she was here right now to tell me - nicely as always – that I’ve rambled and have gone way off course. Which I have.
My apologies for that, and my apologies again for not being able to put into words, adequately, what losing Irene means to us.
But sometimes a loss surpasses words, especially in cases where the person was so important that adjectives and exclamations no longer feel effective.
And they aren’t in this case. I can look at a thesaurus, or the AP style book she gave me as a very kind and delicate critique of my horrible grammar, and I realize that I will never have the words to truly convey what Irene means to all of us.
So all we can say is thank you.
Thank you, Irene.
We will make sure your legacy will not be forgotten, and will be something to be proud of for years to come.