Fort Wayne was supposed to be a temporary stop for Irene Walters. In 1966, she agreed, a bit reluctantly, to stay here for a year so that her husband, Bob, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, could take advantage of a valuable opportunity to clerk for Judge Jesse E. Eschbach, a federal district judge in Fort Wayne.
Walters has called Fort Wayne her home ever since.
It didn’t take long to change my mind, Walters said. I was sold on Fort Wayne within a year or two. I’m a native now. I proudly claim it.
What sold Walters on Fort Wayne? She was won over by the friendly people and the opportunities to get involved and really make a difference, she said.
You have only to drive around Fort Wayne, and there are glimpses of Irene all over the community, said Kathy Carrier, the CEO of Briljent LLC and Keepsake Threads – the IPFW Mastodons on Parade, the Fort Wayne Bicentennial gateway markers and Kids Crossing playground at Lawton Park, for example.
Together, Carrier and Walters worked on the effort that won Fort Wayne the title of All-America City in 1998.
Walters works ceaselessly – both through her job at IPFW as executive director of university relations and on an extensive list of volunteer efforts – to improve the community and help its citizens in extraordinary ways. For her many efforts that are shaping the future of Fort Wayne in ways that will benefit generations to come, Walters is The Journal Gazette’s Citizen of the Year.
This is not the first time The Journal Gazette has recognized Walters’ outstanding contributions to the community. In 1994, members of the Bicentennial Committee – Mike Hawfield, Patty Martone and Walters – were named Citizens of the Year.
In the succeeding years, Walters has continued to do amazing things to make Fort Wayne a more vibrant place to live.
Martone, who died unexpectedly in July, was a close friend and a frequent companion in Walters’ community service endeavors. Martone once aptly described Walters as the P.T. Barnum of Fort Wayne for her unique ability to promote a cause and persuade people to contribute toward a goal.
Ron Turpin, vice president of finance at Lincoln Financial Network, echoes those sentiments. She’s a dynamo, he said. She is one of the most philanthropic and civically engaged people I know. She truly cares about improving the community.
I think you have to look no further than RiverFest as an example of her ability to get things done. When she gets a vision for something, she goes all in. She truly believes in bringing the whole community together to get things done. She’s also a person no one can say no’ to. That’s why I’m on all the boards I’m on.
RiverFest, a weekend-long celebration of the city’s rivers at IPFW, was first held in 2010 and has quickly become one of the most-anticipated annual events in the city. It draws tens of thousands of attendees for family-friendly games, food and river-oriented fun.
RiverFest started as a project of Friends of the Rivers, the local river advocacy group that began because of Invent Tomorrow. Walters was a founding member of both groups.
RiverFest was an attempt to help people rediscover the rivers and to appreciate and enjoy them for recreation, Walters said.
The event has raised about $70,000 over its first three years. Part of that money goes toward RiverFest 2013 and part of the money goes to Friends of the Rivers. That group is also working to organize multiple water-quality and river-advocacy efforts under one umbrella, titled Tri-State Watershed Alliance. The goal is to get groups from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana to join forces to improve and protect the rivers.
It’s about to snowball, Walters said. It’s all about collaboration and cooperation.
Lasting gifts to community
Many of Walters’ efforts that are most visible to the community come as part of her work to promote IPFW as a valuable community asset.
IPFW’s popular Omnibus Lecture Series is one example. Walters leads the committee responsible for the program, which has brought world-famous speakers to Fort Wayne since 1995.
Omnibus is the single most wonderful thing IPFW has done for the community, said Linda Ruffolo, IPFW’s director of development. And for the right price – it’s free! It helps people get to know the university, and it’s a great opportunity for students and the community to hear from a distinguished and diverse group of speakers.
Walters credits former Chancellor Michael Wartell with the idea and the English Bonter Mitchell Foundation with helping to make the lectures possible.
But Walters deserves all the credit for coming up with the idea for IPFW’s annual Tapestry event.
That’s been wildly successful, Ruffolo said. Walters based it on a program at the University of Michigan, where she went to school.
Earlier this year, Patricia Heaton, star of ABC’s The Middle, spoke to more than 1,400 attendees at Tapestry. Academy Award-winning actress Sissy Spacek will be the keynote speaker for Tapestry in April.
The event not only gives the community an opportunity to hear from a nationally recognized speaker, but it has also raised more than $536,000 for scholarships for IPFW students majoring in human services and health-related studies.
Walters is also the mastermind behind the Mastodons on Parade, the public art project that celebrated the university’s 40th anniversary.
Irene aims for perfection in whatever she does, and when she takes on a cause she shows great loyalty to it, Ruffolo said. She represents the university and the community well in whatever she does and we are all very proud of her.
Now she is working on an even more ambitious public art project to celebrate IPFW’s 50th anniversary in 2014. IPFW’s Sculpture with Purpose program is enlisting local artists to design 50 statues that also will serve as bike racks.
It’s a way to celebrate the 50th and give back to the community, Walters said. It’s a sculpture with purpose because it encourages people to be healthier and transforms the landscape.
In May, Bob and Irene Walters were awarded the Bill Latz Award for extraordinary service to the United Way of Allen County. The award was named after the late William Bill Latz, who was a longtime United Way volunteer, and honors volunteers with 20 or more years of service to the charitable organization.
Maya Angelou said that we shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; we need to be able to throw something back, wrote Marilyn Moran-Townsend, CEO of CVC Communications, in an email. I would describe Irene Walters as a major league catcher who connects people with their passions so that collectively, we can all give something back to our community and our world.
Irene is everywhere, Moran-Townsend said. She gives more time, more energy and more leadership to virtually every corner of our community than most people give to one community cause. And Irene’s activism isn’t for a year or two; it’s for decades. This kind of sustained leadership is so rare.
Walters sits on the local United Way’s board of directors and has served several times as a chairwoman of the board and as a chair for the organization’s fundraising campaigns. She was also instrumental in starting Women United, an effort to mobilize female philanthropists.
She is also co-chairwoman of Women United’s successful fundraiser Power of the Purse, which began in 2010.
Turpin, who followed Walters as board chair for United Way, said, Power of the Purse has raised a lot of money for the United Way. A lot of that came from Irene’s sheer force of will.
He said Walters’ particular interest is increasing access to early childhood education and helping children read at grade level by third grade.
She’s big on big ideas – like the bike rack program, Carrier said. Some of her big ideas make the community a more beautiful place. But some of her big ideas have completely changed lives – like her work for the United Way and Francine’s Friends.
Tribute to a fallen hero
Walters was part of a group of close-knit friends who wanted to find a way to honor Francine Schubert, a friend and community servant who lost a long battle against cancer in 2002.
In 2005, with the help of Parkview’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Breast Diagnostic Center, Francine’s Friends mobile mammography coach began rolling through northeast Indiana making lifesaving mammograms available to more women.
She was one of my closest friends, Walters said. She was heroic in her battle with cancer and was always available to other cancer patients. She was a total character and an indomitable spirit. It was her hope we wanted to keep alive.
Sharon Simmons, another founding member of Francine’s Friends, said the initial goal was to have a fundraiser in honor of their friend then turn the money over to some organization to pay for mammograms for women without access.
But it turned into something much bigger, Simmons said. (Walters) was very instrumental in that effort.
Simmons said the group got the idea to build the mobile mammography coach and traveled to Cincinnati to visit a manufacturer and research the costs. When they discovered the astronomical price tag, some people lost confidence that the group could pull off its dream.
Irene never lost enthusiasm, Simmons said. Some people got discouraged, but she saw the end goal and never faltered.