by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
“I got the call while I was sweating and out of breath… I thought maybe (they were calling) to ask me to emcee it!”
For the past 15 years, listeners across West Michigan have tuned in on weekday mornings to listen to Irwin interview artists, writers and community leaders. If you don’t recognize her voice from the radio, you might know her smile; Shelley Irwin is a well-recognized face in Grand Rapids, as she is involved in more than a dozen committees, boards and charitable organizations, including WGVU Women and Girls Lead, Go Red for Women, Michigan Women’s Foundation, Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council and Habitat for Humanity Women Build Committee.
Irwin was the first woman to serve as president of the University Club of Grand Rapids and the third woman to serve as president of the Grand Rapids Lions Club. Her list of professional honors is long; she has won five Gracie Allen Awards for Outstanding Program Host from The Alliance for Women in Media, multiple awards from the Michigan Association of Broadcasting and Associated Press, has been twice nominated for a Michigan Emmy in Special Documentaries and won the Michigan Excellence in Journalism Award for Special Feature from the Society of Professional Journalists.
The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce recently named Irwin winner of the 2016 ATHENA Award, a leadership award designed to recognize women or men who demonstrate professional excellence and outstanding community service. “I was running,” Irwin said of finding out that she had won the prestigious award. “I got the call while I was sweating and out of breath… I thought maybe (they were calling) to ask me to emcee it!”
The ATHENA Awards are part of ATHENA International, founded by Martha Mayhood Mertz in Lansing in 1982 as a means of publically acknowledging female leaders and their contributions. The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce obtained a license to host an ATHENA Program in 1990 and has bestowed the honor to 27 women in the community, including The Honorable Sarah J. Smolenski; Dr. Marsha Rappley, former Dean of Michigan State University College of Human Medicine; Diana R. Sieger, president of Grand Rapids Community Foundation; and Rev. Peggy Lawrence Burns.
The ATHENA selection committee, made up of various women throughout the industry in Grand Rapids, seeks to give the award to a nominee that demonstrates the ATHENA tenets: authentic self, relationships, giving back, collaboration, courageous acts, learning, fierce advocacy, celebration and joy.
If you ask, most people will say that Irwin exhibits these qualities in spades. Mercedes Cowper is an event planner at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and has been involved with running the ATHENA Awards for three years. “Shelley is well known throughout the community for giving back,” Cowper commented. “Her resume and community involvement made it a hands-down decision. She was the one we wanted.”
Irwin was born and raised in the Midwest, but her journey to West Michigan—and broadcasting—began when she was 38 years old. She was working as a physical therapist in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina when she went through a breakup and moved to Rochester, Michigan to be closer to her family.
“I did some soul-searching,” Irwin said. “I thought, ‘You know what? I want to go into my childhood dream of broadcasting.’”
She enrolled in the Spec Howard School of Media Arts, and in 2001 found herself at WGVU as a fill-in host/producer for The WGVU Morning Show, eventually taking over the position full-time. She now also hosts four local PBS shows: Ask the Expert, Community Connection, Family Health Matters, and Kalamazoo Lively Arts. On The WGVU Morning Show, Irwin has interviewed several former ATHENA Award Winners and has a bucket list that includes a sitting U.S. President and the CBS reporter and television journalist Lesley Stahl.
Irwin is live on the air every weekday morning from 9-11:00 a.m. and arrives at the WGVU studio at 6 a.m. to prepare for the day’s show. Her lunch hour is usually filled with a committee meeting, and she is back in the studio until 3 p.m. Then, she gets in a workout and typically goes straight into emceeing an event or leading a community activity.
Irwin says she became involved with the community the old-fashioned way—by being asked. Being sought after to lead boards and committees gave her the tenacity to contribute to the best of her ability.
“People instill confidence that you can do that right away,” Irwin said. “I have always had a ‘just do it’ kind of theory. Don’t question your abilities, just do it.”
She encourages others to do the same and get involved.
“Think of all you can learn and who you can meet,” Irwin remarked. “If you can contribute your time and talents, it is a good experience.”
People often ask how she manages such a full schedule without feeling overwhelmed. Her answer is simple. “I am really good at working hard, playing hard,” she said. “And I am always in bed by 9 p.m.”
For Irwin, not being married or having children has played a significant role in allowing her to dedicate her time toward exactly what she wants. “I have made some sacrifices,” Irwin said. “Therein lies where I can put Shelley first… but if you saw my dogs, you would say, ‘Well, she has three kids.’”
Irwin also attributes exercise to keeping her healthy and sane. She is an avid runner and races at the international level; she has completed five marathons, six Ironman triathlons and more half-marathons than she can count. When Irwin does take time off, she travels around the world with a group of recreational runners and competes in half-marathons. She has run in Ireland, Jamaica and Spain, with plans to run in Iceland next year. She is traveling to Switzerland this September to compete in the Zofingen ITU Powerman Long Distance Duathlon World Championships.
Irwin clearly loves her job and finds joy not only in the big moments (like interviewing broadcast legend Diane Rehm in studio) but also in the day-to-day impact of what she does.
“Somebody out there is listening to you for the first time,” Irwin said. “Maybe you have captured their attention, and they can learn something or be inspired.”
She says that she never hesitated at the idea of pursuing her dream later in life and well into another career. “I didn’t even blink,” Irwin said. “My passion was so strong, and I knew that I could do it.”
For others who are ready to take the plunge and go after their dreams, Irwin recommends keeping a healthy support system, getting enough sleep, and keeping a notebook to write down your goal and the steps to get there to keep yourself accountable. She also says keeping an inspiration notebook is important.
“Try to write something down that made you sizzle every day, and how it got you to that next step,” Irwin advised.
What do the next 10 years hold for Irwin?
“People ask if I have thought about retirement,” Irwin muses. “And no, I haven’t… I need to stay in this business, somehow. I need to tell stories. I need to inspire others.”
Look for her in our community carrying her infamous roving microphone, which she describes as, “Out and about and in your face, so there’s no getting away! It’s a candid camera with a mic.”
The ATHENA Awards Celebration is held Thursday, September 15 from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at the JW Marriott International Ballroom, 235 Louis Campau. Tickets are $60 for Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce members, $75 for future members/late registration, $800 for member corporate table of 10 and $950 for future member corporate table. Irwin is honored at the event, along with the top 10 2016 ATHENA Award Finalists. The 2016 ATHENA Scholarship Recipients and the 2016 ATHENA Young Professionals Award winner is also announced.
2016 ATHENA Finalists
Mina Breuker, Holland Home
Maria Erazo, Maria Erazo Agency
Jennifer Maxson, Varnum Consulting
Peaches McCahill, The McCahill Group
Michelle Rabideau, Saint Mary’s Foundation
Julie Sielawa, YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids
Sandi Steensma, Kennari Consulting
Michele Suchovsky, Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation
Carroll Velie, Varnum LLP
2016 ATHENA Young Professional Award Finalists
Carlye Allen, East Grand Rapids Public Schools
Lisa Anderson, Grace’s Table
Mercedes Barragan, Spectrum Health
Afton DeVos, Kids’ Food Basket
Sonja Forte, Baxter Community Center
Rachel Hood, Chase Park Grants
Celeste Sanchez Lloyd, Spectrum Health – Strong Beginnings
Sara Marie Moylan, Shefit, Inc.
Stacy Stout, City of Grand Rapids
Amanda Williams, Williams Distributing/Kitchen & Bath
Past ATHENA Recipients
Rev. Peggy Lawrence Burns, 2015
Diana Sieger, 2014
Jeanne Englehart, 2013
Carole Valade, 2012
Kathy Crosby, 2011
Marsha Rappley, 2010
Nancy Skinner, 2009
Marge Byington Potter, 2008
Birgit Klohs, 2007
Hon. Sara Smolenski, 2006
Elleen DeVries, 2005
Sharron Reynolds, 2004
Beverly Wall, 2003
Jacqueline Taylor, 2002
Kay Staszel, 2001
Carol Lopucki, 2000
Debra Bailey, 1999
Bonnie Miller, 1998
Mary Alice Williams, 1997
Micki Benz, 1996
Susan Burton, 1995
Meredyth Parrish, 1994
Billie Alexander, 1993
Jane Ross, 1992
Birthale Lambert, 1991
Dorothy Zimdar (DECEASED), 1990
Elyse is a freelance writer in GR. She contributes to Grand Rapids Magazine, is on the editorial board of Caffeinated Press, is a lead editor for The 3288 Review and is the owner-operator of personal biography service Your Story.