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Epilogue | Keith Walter Irwin

Civil rights and hospice pioneer Keith Irwin taught at Eckerd College

ST. PETERSBURG — On March 8, 1965, a group of men gathered at Keith Irwin's St. Petersburg home. It was the height of the civil rights movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was planning to march in Selma, Ala., the following day.

Within hours, Mr. Irwin and three other men got in a car and drove 500 miles through the night to join King.

The march was not as violent as the earlier one that became infamous as "Bloody Sunday," but Mr. Irwin came home deeply affected by the hatred he experienced from segregationists along the march, his wife, Joan, recalled.

Mr. Irwin, Kenneth Keaton and Alan Carlsten, all faculty members at Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College), were greeted by hate mail and demands from college donors for their resignations. The fourth man in the group was Rabbi David Susskind.

Mr. Irwin, the last surviving member of the group, died July 23 after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. He was 86.

• • •

Mr. Irwin was born on Sept. 21, 1922, in La Grange Park, Ill., one of four sons of a minister and his wife. He earned a master of divinity from Garrett Theological Seminary in Chicago and continued graduate studies at Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Irwin worked as an assistant professor and chaplain at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and served as minister for a Methodist church in Wisconsin before leaving to join the National Council of Churches.

In 1961, he received an offer to teach at Florida Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg, which had opened a year earlier.

"He was very excited," Joan Irwin said. "It couldn't have been a better choice."

• • •

Mr. Irwin would spend the next 30 years teaching philosophy at the college, while Joan raised their five children.

In 1962, Mr. Irwin was among the majority of faculty members who submitted letters of resignation after the board of trustees refused to consider the admission application of a black student. In response, the board reversed its decision, saying that applications would be considered "without regard to race, color, or creed."

Jerry Gill was among those who benefited from the protest. By the time Mr. Irwin hired Gill to teach philosophy at the college in 1969, it was a well-integrated campus, Gill said.

"He was incredibly genuine and honest," said Gill, now retired and living in Arizona.

• • •

Another of Mr. Irwin's passions was hospice care. Kathy Jacobs said her father's interest in the subject began on an intellectual level, and grew when he met Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose 1969 book On Death and Dying pioneered the notion of five stages of grief.

In 1977, Mr. Irwin chaired a committee that worked to establish a place in Pinellas County for dying patients and their families.

"Our modern hospice will minister to those traveling toward death, enabling them to 'live until they die' in an atmosphere of support and freedom from pain," Mr. Irwin said in a 1977 story in the St. Petersburg Times.

Later that year, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Hospice was created. It would later become Suncoast Hospice.

• • •

Mr. Irwin retired during the 1985-86 school year, but stayed on as an adjunct professor until 1991. He remained active at the college through the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College.

Several years ago, Mr. Irwin was diagnosed with Parkinson's. On July 16, Mr. Irwin fell at his home in the Westminster Shores retirement community. Doctors at Bayfront Medical Center discovered he had suffered a subdural hematoma, his wife said.

He spent his last days in hospice care, at Hospice House Woodside in Pinellas Park.

He passed away peacefully on July 23, with his wife and other family by his side.

Richard Martin can be reached at or (727) 893-8330


Keith Walter Irwin

Born: Sept. 21, 1922.

Died: July 23, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Joan; children, Kathy Jacobs, of Asheville, N.C., Dr. Lee Irwin and his wife, Ann, of Lexington, Ky., Margaret Fender and her husband, Jim, of Safety Harbor, Tom Irwin and his wife, Mary, of Beaver Dam, Wis., and Rob Irwin and his wife, Jodi, of St. Petersburg; brother Jim Irwin of Fort Myers; and 10 grandchildren.

Civil rights and hospice pioneer Keith Irwin taught at Eckerd College 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 8:58pm]
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