Wherever she went, Irene Kilpatrick always seemed to bump into someone she knew. And if she hadn't yet made someone's acquaintance, the longtime Minneapolis North Sider would treat them as if she had.
Kilpatrick's penchant for chatting up strangers was well known among family and friends. "Irene spoke to everybody," her sister Sandra Kilpatrick said. "My daughter would say, 'Oh Mom, she was doing it again!' "
Kilpatrick's roles in the neighborhood — as an educator with Minneapolis Public Schools, a member of community organizations and a political advocate — meant that she was probably only a degree or two separated from anyone she encountered.
And she has been greatly missed by many following her death on Aug. 19 at age 80.
Irene Kilpatrick grew up in Florida, the oldest of six children. From an early age, she was passionate about education, encouraging the family's older siblings to teach the younger ones. "She set the bar for all of us," Sandra Kilpatrick said.
Kilpatrick received master's degrees from Ohio State and St. Mary's University of Minnesota and worked as a speech and hearing clinician for the Minneapolis school district. She later became a beloved principal.
Kilpatrick participated in community groups including the Minneapolis Urban League and NAACP and was on the board of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library. She supported many Democratic candidates and even served as a national delegate for Shirley Chisholm's pioneering presidential bid.
Kilpatrick was known as a nonjudgmental listener who helped people solve their own problems. And she modeled commitment. "She'd say, 'If you decide to do something, you go all in,' " Sandra Kilpatrick recalled.
Kilpatrick's friend and former colleague Gertrude Flowers Barwick described Kilpatrick as a skilled clinician who held high expectations for her students and established strong relationships with them, too.
"They respected her and they trusted her," Flowers Barwick said. "She was no-nonsense and that came across very clear with them. But what also came across was that she loved them and she cared for them."
After working as a K-8 principal, Kilpatrick took on an assignment many of her peers declined: leading Harrison High School, serving students with learning and behavioral challenges. Kilpatrick ensured the students got the services they needed and cultivated high parent involvement.
Lucy Smith remembered Kilpatrick, who she saw for speech therapy starting at age 12, as a trusted adult who students sought for counsel. "If you needed to talk to her, she was there for you," she said.
Smith and her former classmates saw Kilpatrick as both a loving mentor and a fashion icon, with her signature natural bun, and fancy fingernails painted green, black and red. "When we get to talking about teachers from Franklin Junior High, she's the first one that we bring up," Smith said.
Kilpatrick kept in touch with not only her students, but their parents, including Bonnie Jean Smith (no relation to Lucy).
She described Kilpatrick as an "anchor" for her family and noted how she treated friends as family, too. Kilpatrick had written to Smith this past Mother's Day, thanking her for being a mother who had enriched her life. "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it," Kilpatrick wrote.
"I wish I could have cloned her," Bonnie Jean Smith said.
Kilpatrick is survived by siblings Sandra Kilpatrick, Mary Alice Reed, Gloria Jean Thomas, and Sylvia Glass. Services have been held.
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569