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Columbia Missourian

UPDATE: Veteran Tribune humor columnist and Columbia icon Irene Haskins dies at 84

By Andrew Brown, Nassim Benchaabane
September 28, 2012 | 11:13 a.m. CDT
Irene Haskins, longtime columnist of "Smile Awhile" for Columbia Tribune, died Thursday, Sept. 27, 2011.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the bank.

COLUMBIA — Irene Haskins’ column may have been titled “Smile Awhile,” but she kept Columbia smiling for much longer than the title indicates.


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Ms. Haskins died Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, at Boone Hospital Center. She suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after falling and hitting her head on Sept. 15, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune, and she remained unconscious until her death. She was 84.

Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1, on the University of Missouri campus in Jesse Hall.  Visitation is from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Funeral Home, 1217 Business Loop 70 E.

Ms. Haskins was born on Jan. 4, 1928, in Prophetstown, Ill. Her parents, Margaret and Rene DeSmet, moved with Ms. Haskins to Rock Island, Ill., when she was just a few months old. 

Ms. Haskins' ability to sing was recognized when she was 4. Her mother entered her into talent shows often, and during her school years she participated in almost every musical production put together at Rock Island High School, where she graduated in 1945. 

While her ultimate goal was to become a professional vocalist, her dreams were never realized.  

Instead, Ms. Haskins became a secretary for Rock Island Arsenal, and she sang for bands on weekends. She continued to work at Rock Island from 1948 to 1958, until her marriage to John Haskins. After she became a mother, she stayed home to care for her two children, Lauren and Matthew.

John Haskins was employed with J.I. Case Co. His work led the family to move around the country several times until they finally settled in Columbia in 1976.

Ms. Haskins was working at the Boone County National Bank* and sustaining her dream as a singer on the weekends, when she began her unexpected career at the Columbia Daily Tribune.

She started at the Tribune after she wrote a funny submission about her move from San Francisco to Columbia for the Tribune’s “Be Our Guest” column.

Karen Worley, then editor of “Be Our Guest,” persuaded her to continue sharing her thoughts with the community.

She shared her thoughts with Tribune readers about subjects ranging from the National Enquirer and her brother’s bowling skills to car shopping, weight issues and her guilt after neglecting her granddaughter’s cyberpet until it died.

Friend and former colleague Donna Battle Pierce recalled reading Ms. Haskins' column before Pierce joined the Tribune staff.

Her mother would send copies of the newspaper to her in San Francisco, sometimes just clippings of "Smile Awhile."

"Irene was much funnier than Erma Bombeck," Pierce said.

Pierce recalls meeting Ms. Haskins. It was Pierce's first day in the newsroom, in 1996. Ms. Haskins had been there for nearly two decades.

"I heard Irene's voice, and I couldn’t even speak," she said. "I was just excited to be in her presence. I felt like I already knew her, but I (had) never met her in person."

Pierce eventually summoned the courage and talked to Ms. Haskins, about her dreams of writing about family and food history. Pierce said the columnist noticed her passion and told her she "had fire in her belly," a phrase she often repeats to young journalists today, with her mentor in mind. 

“I can still close my eyes and see that day and hear her say that. It was probably our first conversation," Pierce said. 

She described Ms. Haskins as upbeat and positive, someone who lived life to the fullest. She never cared what others thought and played by her own set of rules, Pierce said.

Ms. Haskins jumped in the middle of things, didn’t have limits and was friends with people of all ages, cultures and personalities, Pierce added.

According to an Oct. 17, 1997, clip from the Tribune about her first 20 years as a columnist, Ms. Haskins never missed a deadline, and "nothing pleased her more than to hear she made someone laugh."

She was continually sharing the details of her life with the public, the story noted. She wrote a column about her daughter earning a driver's learning permit while she chewed her fingers “down to the second knuckle.”

She declared that her divorce in 1986 after nearly 30 years of marriage would “change her forever.”

Ms. Haskins was bold enough to write about the “o-word.” She once quipped about her “expired libido” when she wrote about a Milwaukee woman’s spontaneous orgasm after being hit on the head by a 300-pound bingo board.

She was candid about her passion for the TV quiz show "Jeopardy" and its host, Alex Trebek. Ms. Haskins failed auditions for the show multiple times but wrote a column in 1994 about meeting her “hunk du jour” when she tailed him like a “panting puppy looking for a fire hydrant” during his visit to Columbia that year.

A local icon, she won numerous awards for her column, and the Tribune published a collection of them in a book with the same title.

She was deeply rooted in the Columbia community and frequently appeared with Paul Pepper on his TV show, “Pepper & Friends,” often singing in big-band style. She also contributed to an afternoon talk show in the 1980s on KFRU with Ellen Schenk.

Ms. Haskins and her former husband, John, hosted annual “cooked-in-a-garbage-can” dinners. A May 31, 1978, Tribune article reported that invitations came straight from “the Haskins’ grovel” with recommendations for dress: “tramp togs, hobo hand-me-downs, good-will grubbies and garage sale rejects.”

The invitations noted that a Porta-Potty would be available on the premises. 

Tribune writer Hal Boedeker wrote about her eating alone in a 1984 story. With traveling for work, her daughter married with a family of her own and her then-17-year-old son out and about, Ms. Haskins trained her cat, Lotus, to sit at the table with her.

Over her career, Haskins has been honored with several awards, including the Missouri Press Women's 1986 Woman of Achievement Award. Last week, the Missouri Press Association gave Ms. Haskins an award for best humor columnist of 2011. Her last column was about adults attempting to pass themselves off as older than they were to enjoy senior citizen benefits.

Ms. Haskins never retired but said that if she did, she would look for the kind of job she already had. 

Ms. Haskins did take a leave of absence from the Tribune in 2004 when she was diagnosed with stage-four non-Hodgkin lymphoma. After her year-long chemotherapy treatment, she returned to the Tribune. 

"It was one of the proudest moments of my life," she said. 

After her recovery, Ms. Haskins devoted herself to raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Ms. Haskins helped raise $50,000 for the cause and was awarded the Diamond Award, which is the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's highest recognition.

“The number one thing I remember about Irene is her big heart," Pierce said. "She was one of the kindest people I had ever met, and she always looked for the best in people, and then she wrote about it with a sense of humor."

"You felt better around her," Pierce said. "And Irene loved, loved, loved her family. Unconditionally. She’s left a big hole."

Ms. Haskins once said: "If you get through life with a few good friends, a family that speaks to you and a smile on your face, you're a success."

By her own definition, Ms. Haskins achieved success. 

Irene Haskins is survived by her former husband, John, who remained close to her throughout the years; her daughter, Lauren Matthews; her son, Matthew Haskins; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.