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With a song in her heart

Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Irene's headshot

Faith and a God-given talent helped propel alumna to multi-faceted career

by Mary Denny

Irene Folley had an inauspicious start. She was born into a first- generation American family of Hispanic descent to a father who served in the military and a mother with a ninth-grade education. She and her four siblings grew up in very humble circumstances amid an atmosphere she describes as an “alcoholic war zone.”  Yet she managed to become the first in her family to graduate from college, become one of the first Hispanic women on television in the late 60s, and have a career that encompassed broadcasting, teaching, mission outreach, community relations, and running a small business. 

Aided by her mother, who “modeled, faith, perseverance, and strength,” Irene’s own deep-seated faith was “seeded in my very soul” by a comforting Sunday school song she learned in third grade. “Only God would take a timid, skinny child who would hide behind the sofa and give her a gift for singing that ultimately became her ‘voice’ to speak to others,” she says. 

At age 11, Irene heard famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sing on TV, and witnessed the sense of peace and harmony her voice had on the crowd, and says, “it was then that I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” Irene began singing constantly, even while hanging laundry in the 100-degree Texas heat. She saved her babysitting money to buy an old, out-of-tune piano, and a kind lady at her church gave her lessons in exchange for singing for weddings and special church programs. Woodlawn Methodist Church became her training ground, and eventually she was invited to sing with the adult choir.

In 9th grade, Irene was paired with pianist Danny Hooper, a 15-year-old prodigy who had studied at Trinity, for a talent show. He suggested that she sing “Summertime” and taught it to her. Until then she had always learned songs by memory and sung a capella. Recognizing her talent, he encouraged her to audition for the Thomas Jefferson High School Choir, after which the choir director offered to provide her voice lessons. She began participating as soloist in Concert and All-State choirs and as soloist at her church choir. Danny also suggested she audition for a Trinity music scholarship.

Very “humbled and frightened” Irene stepped onto the Ruth Taylor Music Hall stage before such famed Trinity music faculty as William Thornton, Rosalind Phillips, and Andrew Milhaso, she “prayed for God to use me as His instrument and—to my joy—I was accepted.”  

From the moment she arrived at Trinity, “doors began to open”. She loved her “inspiring and soulful mentor” Rosalind Phillips, who taught her about poise, to be disciplined and focused, to work hard, and to savor each moment of a performance. Another music professor, Gerald Benjamin, introduced her to the vocal music of Spanish and Brazilian singers and composers, and they became a colorful part of her repertoire.

She remembers singing with a Trinity group who entertained wounded warriors returning from Viet Nam, appearing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in 1967, winning second runner-up in the Miss San Antonio Pageant for Talent in 1968, and representing Trinity to perform on “Campus Talent, ” a show that was televised by Southwestern Bell. 

That performance led to the “Seven Show” on KSAT-TV, and thus began a 10-year career in broadcasting that took her from Texas, to Albany NY, Providence, Rhode Island, Boston and ultimately to Chicago as a feature reporter and weekend weather woman on CBS. From there she transitioned to WFLD-FOX 32 as the feature reporter on PM Magazine and then as co–host. She also sang with the Chicago Master Singers. 

Irene’s passion for music has never waned. Early in her career she was accepted to the Eastman School of Music, but as a newlywed she could not afford to go. However, she still found opportunities to study with distinguished teachers and continue singing. She served with a ministry team to form a contemporary service and sang the frontline Worship Team for that service in Arlington Heights, Illinois. She also directed one of the children’s choirs there for seven years. Between 2004-2006, she says,  “God put all of my skills in communication, networking, advocacy, fundraising, and mission outreach to use as director of a non-profit that served the under-resourced in the NW suburbs of Chicago.” 

Divorced and still living in that area, Irene now works part-time for a marketing company where she trains new employees and teaches them conflict resolution skills. Recently, she attended the Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek in Barrington, Illinois, saying, “It is important to keep studying and learning.”  

Still deeply grounded in her faith, Irene begins and ends each day by reading devotionals. She stays fit with Zumba classes, 5K fundraiser walks, and practicing yoga. In the past she coached children and teens as they prepared for vocal auditions. But “my children and grandchildren are my heartbeat. Spending time with my family is better than a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and nuts,” she says with an infectious smile. 

Last February, Irene—proudly celebrating her 50th reunion this year—attended Trinity’s Alumni Choir Celebration and sang in concert with 130 Choir alumni from around the country. “Memories of all the wonderful opportunities I was blessed with at Trinity came flooding back,” she says. While continuing to encourage others to “find your voice, mentor, and be an advocate for others, and believe in miracles,” Irene adds, “I am always looking for the next assignment God has for me.” 

You can contact Irene at wmnofaith [at] hotmail.com