One last standing ovation for humor columnist Irene Haskins

Monday, October 1, 2012 | 9:01 p.m. CDT; updated 11:25 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 2, 2012
People gathered Monday at Jesse Auditorium for the funeral services of Irene Haskins, who was a humor columnist at the Columbia Tribune for more than 35 years.

This story has been changed to clarify *George Mazurak's role at the Columbia Daily Tribune and to correct the **age difference between Ms. Haskins and Ryan McNeil.

COLUMBIA — Columbia pianist Sutu Forté half-sat and half-danced while playing an energetic and heart-lifting tune to begin a rousing memorial service on Monday for Irene Haskins at Jesse Auditorium.

Forté said before she began playing that Ms. Haskins had always been one of her favorite dancers.

"You always liked to make your own choreography, Irene, so here we go. It's your turn to dance," Forté exclaimed. "Oh, she would always dance to her own choreography when we performed, and it was so cute."

About 250 people gathered for the service honoring Ms. Haskins, a longtime humor columnist for the Columbia Daily Tribune. The ceremony resembled a vaudeville variety show far more than a funeral. In a fitting tribute to the way she lived her life, Ms. Haskins' memory was eulogized with smiles, jokes and musical performances.

Forté donned a hot pink wig for the occasion, a nod to Ms. Haskins' affinity for having pink highlights in her hair. Dozens in attendance also had streaks of pink in their hair.

Every now and then, during both songs and remembrances, Christine Doerr appeared on stage as Charlie Chaplin, adding humor to the Irene-centered performance.

Speakers joked about Ms. Haskins' ability to completely "steal the show" with her personality wherever she went. No matter the situation, she always seemed to be the center of attention. 

"I wanted to take a couple moments to talk about the times Irene didn't make things about herself," Tribune reporter Jodie Jackson Jr. said toward the end of the service. But after a brief pause and twitch of the mouth, he conceded:

"All right, I got nothing."

Jackson recalled that he and Ms. Haskins delivered a eulogy together for the late Tribune editor and reporter George Mazurak* in 2010. Jackson offered a few words, and Ms. Haskins followed with four typed pages that were "mostly about herself."

Still, Jackson said, he treasured his time working with Ms. Haskins at the Tribune.

"Some of you have known her for decades, and I envy that," he said. "I have been privileged to know her for four years."

Speakers reminisced about hilarious memories of Ms. Haskins' outgoing personality. Tribune Managing Editor Jim Robertson, who worked with her for 30 years, read remembrances written by former "Tribbies." One from photographer Jenna Isaacson Pfueller remembered Ms. Haskins' 82nd birthday, when she and a few colleagues took a trip to Club Vogue. They treated Ms. Haskins to a lap dance. 

Smiles and jokes weren't Ms. Haskins' only specialties. As noted in her obituary, Ms. Haskins' was a natural-born singer.

Bill Clark, a friend and co-worker of Ms. Haskins, said she sang "anywhere she could find an open mic." 

While the obituary stated that her "ultimate dream" of becoming a famous singer was never realized, Jackson said he begged to differ: "We were her instruments, and we were her orchestra. In real life, she was a 'rock star.'"

Tribune publisher Hank Waters described Ms. Haskins as being "bigger than life" in the newsroom. Robertson also spoke fondly about what she meant to everyone there.

"She made us all feel like a special family."

The audience watched an emotional video tribute to Ms. Haskins' memory by Ryan McNeil. It was called "I'll be seeing you." Ms. Haskins and McNeil, both cancer survivors, teamed up as performers to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and as hired entertainers. It was an unlikely partnership — McNeil was nearly 60 years younger than Ms. Haskins** —  but it revived her singing ambitions, and the two became friends. McNeil could not be at the funeral.

The proceedings ended with Forté and Debbie D'Agostino leading the audience in a singalong to "Pennies from Heaven." A singalong was something Ms. Haskins' was said to have insisted upon.

Robertson, during his eulogy, spoke about a side of Ms. Haskins that wasn't as public as her celebrity persona. She had "a quiet generosity and kind spirit," Robertson said. "Most of all, she wanted us to keep smiling."

When it was all over, the audience rose to give Ms. Haskins a final standing ovation.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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