Irene Haskins died Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, at Boone Hospital Center surrounded by family. She was 84.
Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1, at Jesse Hall on the University of Missouri campus. Entombment will be at Memorial Cemetery. Visitation is from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Funeral Home.
Pallbearers are Hank Waters, Vicki Russell, Andy Waters, Jim Robertson, Alexander Haskins and Dennis DeSmet.
Irene was born Jan. 4, 1928, on a farm in Prophetstown, Ill., to Margaret Hauman DeSmet and Rene DeSmet. When she was only a few months old, the family moved to Rock Island, Ill., to be near other relatives and for Irene's dad to find employment. Growing up with her younger brother, Dick, during the Depression didn't affect Irene at the time because she always had Mom and Dad, friends, and a bed to sleep in. She didn't realize until much later just how hard times had been.
Starting around age 4, Irene was getting noticed because of her singing voice, something she always said "just came out of me." During those lean Depression days, Irene's mother would enter her in every talent show she could find, and little Irene with the big voice usually won. First prize might have been only $5, but it helped buy groceries and pay the rent. After Irene started school, which she loved, she was in practically every musical production from first grade through high school — never in the leading role, however. She graduated from Rock Island High School in 1945, just as World War II was winding down.
Her life's ambition was to be a singer with a famous big band. Her bad eyesight and thick glasses were a handicap in many ways, but she nevertheless became the vocalist with many local dance bands traveling within a 100-mile radius from Rock Island. Her ultimate dream was never realized. Instead, since she excelled at typing and shorthand, she became a secretary, working Monday through Friday and singing with bands on weekends. She was employed at Rock Island Arsenal from 1948 until 1958, when she married John Haskins, a native of Lancaster, Wis., and stayed home to raise their two children, Laurie and Matthew.
Her husband's job with J.I. Case Co. entailed moving up the ladder and around the country. They lived in Rock Island, Racine, Wis., Atlanta, Ga., and Pleasanton, Calif., before being transferred to Columbia in 1976. A year later, Irene began her accidental career as a humor columnist with the Columbia Daily Tribune after submitting a couple of samples for possible publication. Dubbing her column "Smile Awhile," not only was she hired on the spot, she also became the newsroom receptionist and obituary writer. She held these duties until 1989 when she began writing the weekly "Snapshots" feature, a lighthearted round-up of local social events. In addition, she also wrote "Making A Difference," a column featuring individual volunteers. Over her career, Irene received many state and national awards and in 1985, she was named Woman of Achievement by the Missouri Press Women. In partnership with the Tribune, she also published a book in 1984 comprising a compilation of her columns. She always intended to do another one but "just didn't get around to it."
For a few years in the late 1980s, Irene did a daily afternoon talk show on KFRU with Ellen Schenk, giving it up after Schenk's departure in 1991. She remained a regular and popular guest on that station, most memorably with Fred Parry. For 25 years, she also was a regular guest on KOMU-TV's "Pepper and Friends."
In 2004, Irene was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and began almost a year's treatment of chemotherapy, taking a leave of absence from the Tribune, never once thinking that during that time, she wouldn't return to the job and the people she loved. After undergoing the debilitating and sometimes painful treatment, she made a triumphant return. "It was one of the proudest moments of my life," she said. Realizing not every cancer patient enjoys such a success story, Irene devoted herself to raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In her first year as honorary chairwoman of the organization's Light the Night fundraiser, Irene and co-chair Ryan McNeil raised a record $50,000, for which Irene was presented with the Diamond Award, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's highest recognition.
It was because of her illness that Irene resumed her singing career, teaming up with McNeil, an MU student, singer and, in many minds, "future star," to perform not only fundraisers but as hired entertainment for local functions and events. "I can't believe I'm doing this again at my age," she often laughed.
Irene's two big hobbies were fishing and bingo, mostly because, as she said, "You don't have to exert yourself much." Along with her family, those hobbies were often subjects in her column. Her children never knew beforehand, nor did they mind, when they became column fodder. But most of all, she loved life and bringing laughter to others.
Irene received many recognitions and awards but liked to define success in her own way. "If you can get through life with a few good friends, a family that speaks to you and a smile on your face, you're a success."
Although John and Irene were divorced in 1986, they remained friends and were together for all family occasions and holidays; he survives in Chicago. Also surviving are daughter Lauren Matthews; son Matthew Haskins and his wife, Marie, all of Columbia; six grandchildren, Meagan and Whitney Matthews, and Alexander, Lauren and Mariah Haskins, all of Columbia, and Hope Haskins of Senatobia, Miss.; two great-grandchildren, Jordan Matthews and Jalen Henderson of Columbia; her brother, Richard DeSmet and wife Etta of Rock Island; and three nephews, Dennis, Ric and Jeff DeSmet, all of Rock Island.
She was preceded in death by her parents, an infant brother and a niece.
Memorials are suggested to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Tributes can be left online at memorialfuneralhomeandcemetery.com