BY CATHERINE KOZAK
Irene Nolan, the dedicated co-founder and editor of The Island Free Press, covered the news on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands as thoroughly and as professionally as if it were a big-city newspaper. It was never just her job; it was her mission and her passion.
Nolan died Friday, March 3, at a Norfolk hospital, with her family at her bedside. She was 70.
“Her work ethics and standards far exceeded anyone I have ever worked with,” said Donna Barnett, co-owner of the Island Free Press, the first and only online newspaper on the islands. “She loved the community and this community loves her.”
An island “come-here,” Nolan had visited Hatteras Island with her children for decades before settling down full-time in 1991 with her husband C.A. Boxley, at the house he had built years earlier in Frisco.
Boxley, by all accounts the love of Nolan’s life, died of cancer on Aug. 6, 2000.
Before The Island Free Press was launched in 2007, Nolan had edited The Island Breeze, a monthly publication owned by Tony McGowan, for 16 years.
“She took over the reigns of the editorial content of the Breeze with an enthusiasm built from love of her new home, its people, the environment in which she and C.A thrived and the built-in responsibility that comes with having a voice for the community” McGowan said in a statement.
A Navy brat who was born in Brooklyn, Nolan had lived in Norfolk for part of her youth, and had fond memories of trips to the Outer Banks. When she had her own family, Nolan was determined to return with her children. So starting in the 1970s, she loaded her kids, Kathleen and Chris, into the car, and headed from Louisville to to the beach.
“The first year, we stayed in Nags Head , and it was far too busy for her,” recalled her son, Chris Nolan. “So the second year, we went all the way down to Buxton to the Cape Sandbox Motel, near the Hatteras lighthouse.”
And for the next 20 plus years, the family converged on Hatteras Island for a three-week vacation, “come hell or high water,” he said. Eventually, his mother invested in a house on Brigand’s Bay, which has served since as the family vacation house. Over the years, nine grandchildren and Nolan’s brother and sister and their families have joined in the annual family vacation.
“It was very important to her,” said her daughter Kathleen Nolan Andres. “She was very instrumental in shaping her grandchildren’s love of the island and the beach.”
To illustrate her mother’s focused discipline and unflappable determination, Andres recalled a dramatic start to one vacation when she was a teenager. A few hours after leaving Louisville to head to the Outer Banks, the family had stopped near Richmond and everyone piled out of the Volkswagen bus for a break. To their horror, within minutes, the entire vehicle was engulfed in flames – a fuel line had apparently broken.
“Here we were, five hours away from the beach, but we were not going home,” Andres remembered. Instead, they stayed the night in Richmond, and by the next morning, their mother had rented a car. Before resuming their trip, they drove to Kmart, where everyone was directed to pick out the necessary clothing and supplies for the beach.
“By that afternoon, we were packed in the car, and on our way,” she said.
Andres said her mother was adept at the balancing act of having a career and being a mother.
“She always made us a priority,” she said. Even as and adult when Andres’ political and religious views diverged from her mother’s, she said her mother always respected her viewpoint and supported her choices.
Despite a busy career as a major newspaper managing editor, Nolan used to leave notes each day for her children’s daily tasks, to start the evening meal. She had developed an efficient system to make sure a famly dinner was on the table every night. Somehow she managed to get home by 6 p.m. or so every night and get dinner on the table by 7:30 p.m., her son remembered.
“It wasn’t just fast food. It was a well prepared meat, a vegetable and a potato,” he said. “And we had to eat it all.”
Irene Nolan had achieved tremendous success during her 22 years working as a journalist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. She lead the newsroom as one of the nation’s first female managing editors during an era when women were still a rarity in management roles. Shortly before she left, she and her staff were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of a tragic bus accident.
In an article published in The Courier-Journal Nolan’s successor as managing editor, Stephen Ford, admired how Nolan’s temperament fit the difficult task of guiding the paper’s consolidation and transition from family-owned to chain ownership.
“ She was fiercely determined to preserve the long-standing commitment of the newspapers to hard-nosed, public-service journalism,” he wrote, “but at the same time she could be decidedly unsentimental and open to change.”
Moving to Hatteras Island was a dramatic change in lifestyle for Nolan, and she often joked about how her friends back in Louisville didn’t understand what got into her.
GeeGee Rosell, the owner of Buxton Village Books and Nolan’s longtime friend and neighbor, said that Nolan “jumped in with both feet.”
“When she decided to move here, she made a commitment to be a part of the community, not apart from it,” she said. That included volunteering for numerous local causes. “And as a reporter, she showed up at every community event, and made sure there was coverage.”
Rosell was friends with Boxley, who was a lumber broker, before Nolan became smitten with him.
“It was a match made in heaven,” Rosell said. “They were two experienced, intelligent and mature people who knew what they wanted and found it in each other.”
Both of them had been married before, and had known each other during previous relationships. But in their later years, serendipity struck, and sparks flew.
“He was a Southern gentleman,” Rosell said. “They didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but they respected each other’s values. He was very elegant, very well spoken, very well educated and a fabulous businessman. Yet, he could fillet a fish on the tailgate of a jeep out on the beach just like everyone else.”
After he died of cancer in 2000, Nolan always noted the anniversary of his death, or their wedding, and in between, related tidbits about their lives together.
The tide turned again for Nolan in 2007, when a change in ownership at the Breeze led to a power struggle and her unwarranted dismissal. Instead of licking her wounds, Nolan consulted with Buddy Swain at Hatteras Designs, who suggested she start her own newspaper. Nolan leapt at the idea. Partnering with Barnett, who quit her job at the Breeze, the Island Free Press was born on Sept. 5, 2007, before anyone had a chance to miss her. Nolan delighted in naming her weekly editor’s blog “Shooting the Breeze.”
“To our amazement, month after month our readership grew and still continues to grow to this day,” Barnett said, adding there were more than 1.5 million visits to the website in 2016.
Nolan worked at her home, often all day, every day – sometimes into the night, and on weekends. Even though she was her own boss, she felt a steely obligation to the reader to get the news published. In return, she insisted on reasonable comments and respectful discourse from her readers.
“We always laughed about how it was a labor of love to the community,” Barnett said. “We worked tirelessly during Hurricane Matthew in October and lightheartedly joked that we probably made about a $1 an hour that month.”
Despite reaching the top of her profession, Nolan never showed off to other journalists. Instead, she welcomed any chance to share time with others in the business and help whenever she could. She was an expert weather watcher, skillfully interpreting data and satellite imagery to glean local impacts. And she loved doing it.
Steve Earley, a photographer at The Virginian-Pilot, got to know Nolan well during his frequent trips to the island to cover hurricanes and storm damage, starting with Hurricane Isabel in 2003, which devastated Hatteras Island.
“Irene was at her best during storm season,” Earley said in an email. “Always a call from Irene urging us to come down a little bit sooner, making sure we got to Hatteras before the bridge was closed. And then the trading of little bits of information, phone calls from Irene sharing what she had heard from friends in exchange for what we saw driving about the island.”
And then, he continued, when the work was done, they would share steamed shrimp, cold beer and sliced tomatoes from her garden. Or in power outages, the grill and lanterns would come out.
“She had reached the peak in journalism – the Pulitzer Prize – and could have easily rested after making her mark,” Earley said. “But being a journalist to the core, Irene took me and I don’t know how many writers under her wing and taught us how to find the story, encouraged us, pushed us and made sure we got it right.”
Barnett said the Island Free Press will continue publishing “with the same high standards.”
“Our goal has been and will continue to be not to just provide more information about the islands, but to encourage a better conversation about the issues that islanders and visitors face every day,” she said. “We at the IFP will carry on her legacy with the same professionalism and dedication that she would want. We will make her proud.”