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Darren Irby

Red Cross executive re◊ ects on career, 9/11

By Tammy Keith

This article was published September 11, 2011 at 4:05 a.m.

— Darren Irby is 40, but he could pass for 30. His face is unlined and boyish, but he’s seen more disasters than anyone should have to in a lifetime.

It’s his job.

Now the national executive director of marketing with the American Red Cross, he’s worked 109 disasters to date, including Hurricane Irene.

Wearing blue jeans, a white longsleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up and plaid, Converse tennis shoes, Irby relaxed in a leather chair in the living room of his 1927 home in old Conway.

He planned to be in New York City this weekend for a reunion of the national Red Cross Advanced Public Affairs Team, whom he managed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

They became “an instant family” because of that shared experience, he said.

“You’re in the trenches, and I’ll say I- but collectively speaking for the 12-15 of us - I don’t feel like I effectively mourned,” he said. “I didn’t see the prayer services; I didn’t see a lot of whatAmerica saw because I was working.

“I’m happy to finally reflect in a more meaningful way and maybe have closure.”An incident when Irby was in elementary school spurred his careerwith the Red Cross.

Irby grew up in Mountain Home; his father was with the Arkansas State Police, and his mother was in banking. When his father served as security for then-Gov. David Pryor, the family lived in Little Rock.

Irby was in the second grade when his neighborhood flooded.

“The parents were waiting for the kids to get off the bus, and we got on a boat,” he said. “I have a vivid memory of my mom just sobbing in the front yard, just bowled over. She said, ‘It took a lifetime to collect all this and just a few minutes to wash away.’”

The young Irby didn’t care that he’d lost all his toys, “but I had a Cub Scout meeting the next week, and my uniform was gone.”

A Red Cross volunteer gave the family vouchers for their immediate needs, and the woman wrote Irby avoucher to go to J.C. Penney to buy a new uniform.

Not only that, she brought her son’s Cub Scout manual for Irby to use.

That thoughtful act made a deep impression on him.

He volunteered with the Red Cross when he was in his teens and while he attended Harding University in Searcy.

Irby’s major was communications, with a minor in Bible, and he said he always had an interest in politics and political service.

When Jack Shock, chairman of the department of communication at Harding, heard Irby’s name, he said: “My hero.”

Shock, who was one of Irby’s professors, said he knew Irby was special.

“I knew immediately [he was special] when he was 19 years old and I met him for the first time, and he said, ‘OK, here are a list of things I want to accomplish,’” Shock said.

The two stayed in touch after Irby graduated, and shortly after Sept. 11, Irby called Shock to come to New York to volunteer with the Red Cross, which he did.

“I knew he was big; I knew he was important. I knew he was making a difference in the world, but I had no idea until I got there,” Shock said. “His skill sets were the most needed. He was helping manage all the information coming out of ground zero, which is what everyone wanted to know.”

Shock said Irby taught him that it’s always about the client, no matter what decision is being made.

“I have seen him - and I don’t want to name names - I have seen him face down the biggest nonelected names in this country that you can imagine,” Shock said.

“I have seen him get in their face and say, ‘This is not right - this shelter is not a photo opportunity for you,’ and protect those clients.”

During Irby’s final semester at Harding, he was an intern in the East Wing of the White House under President Bill Clinton.

Irby’s job was working with visitors and special events, such as the Easter egg roll. There were lots of visitors, of course, and many famous ones.

The third day he was there, The Firm was being filmed in Washington, and Irby treated author John Grisham and Grisham’s family to Cokes and M&M’s while they waited to meet Clinton.

“I was the tour guide, essentially,” Irby said.

In 1993, Irby was assigned to a team that worked at the National Archives.

It was “a surreal experience” going through a U.S. president’s family photo albums, he said, imitating the ripping sound of tearing photos off old album pages, and trying to decide, for example, where to put a photo of a reclining Bill Clinton with baby Chelsea standing on his stomach.

While Irby was in Washington, he received a call about an opening in the state Red Cross office, and he moved to Little Rock.

As a spokesman for the Red Cross, Irby went to disasters such as Arkansas tornadoes. He was in the spotlight, helping people understand what had happened and how. Then Irby was named to the national Rapid Response Team, which is now referred to as the Advanced Public Affairs Team.

On April 19, 1995, his 24th birthday, Irby had taken the day off and was getting his driver’s license renewed when he was paged.

The federal building in downtown Oklahoma City had been bombed. The attack killed 168 people, including 19 children at a day care, andhundreds were injured.

As the Red Cross spokesman, he was involved in the support center where family members gathered, serving as the liaison between family members and the media and conducting a press conference each day with the medical examiner.

Irby was there 20 days and was interviewed on The Today Show.

“It was the biggest thing to happen to me professionally,” he said.

It was also an emotional experience unlike any he’d ever had.

“It was hard coming back from doing something like that. … You’re in the hallway, e ven the Red Cross hallway, and people say, ‘Oh, you’re back. How was Oklahoma City?’ There’s no way to explain that in a hallway conversation, to explain what you saw, smelled and experienced.”

That event prepared Irby for future disasters, he said - “knowing my limit - when I needed to walk away.

“It made me a better Red Crosser and team member. I can’t fix everything and solve everyone’s problems. I think I found this really good balance,” he said.

Irby and other members of the Advanced Public Affairs Team were on call and rotated disasters.

He started working for the national headquarters as vice president of communications in 1996 while still based in Little Rock, and he moved toWashington in 1998.

“Elizabeth Dole was president of the [American] Red Cross, and when she would go on a disaster, I would go and do all of the advance for her - find a family for her to meet with, get the lay of the land,” he said.

He didn’t always travel to disaster sites. Sometimes he would work from the disaster operations center, an underground bunker at the headquarters in Washington, “like you see on TV with big tables and big screens.”

He went there immediately on 9/11, then headed to the Pentagon shortly thereafter.

“It was crazy,” Irby said. “It was chaos, although there was more order there than anywhere else because of the military function.”

He was responsible for getting the Advanced Public Affairs Team to other locations. The disaster was a year’s worth of work for the Red Cross.

“We brought thousands of people in for mass care,” he said, which included mentalhealth services.

He spent 25 days working for the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I rode out the storm in Biloxi in a devastated Holiday Inn,” he said.

The window blew out in the room, and he took shelter in a bathroom. He flew to Houston a couple of days later to help establish infrastructure at the Astrodome before the first bus arrived from New Orleans.

“We had 30-something hours to establish infrastructure for 20,000 people,” he said, before they were bused to other places, including Arkansas.

“You’re hugging people that just four hours ago were being helicoptered out from on top of their house,” he said.

What he remembers most is the anxiety people had, not knowing where family members were.

“It’s replaying in my mind right now - ‘My mom’s a diabetic; please, please help me find her,’” he recalled.

During the recent Hurricane Irene, he coordinated corporate partners who wanted to give blood or money, or supply volunteers, and he worked with the celebrity cabinet to figure out who they could help. Irby is the liaison between the Red Cross and NASCAR, so he worked to get information to drivers who help the organization, particularly Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.

Irby has become the goto guy to help with celebrity telethons during disasters.

He spent three days working with actor George Clooney for the Tsunami of Hope celebrity telethon.

“George Clooney is amazing. He is so unpretentious, smart and nice,” Irby said. “He doesn’t have an entourage, looks you in the eye, asks really great questions and sincerely thanks you.”

Irby moved to Conway a couple of years ago. In addition to working on major projects for the Red Cross, most of Irby’s time is spent on blood services.

“Coming up through the ranks of storm chasing, I’m responsible for marketing the blood program, working on the blood-donor pool,” he said. “It’s dying; it doesn’tseem to be the rite of passage” it once was in families.

“What I love about blood donation, it’s one of the very rare ways you’re physically giving of yourself to help someone else, … physically helping to save a life. People should consider that an honor.”

Irby is an unassuming guy, but his dedication and talent haven’t gone unnoticed.

He was Harding University’s Outstanding Alumnus in 2002. The U.S. Junior Chamber named him one of 10 Outstanding Young Americans in 2004, and he was named Public Relations Professional of the Year from the Public Relations Society of America for his work during Hurricane Katrina.

Irby considers it an honor to work for the Red Cross, and he said his passion hasn’t waned through the years.

“I feel very, very blessed and honored and privileged to get paid to help people,” he said. “I never really thought volunteering would lead to a career, but this is true public service.

“Everyone should be so lucky.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

up close

getting to know Darren IrbyFavorite book: I think it will always be Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls.

Someday I’ll: Actually sleep eight hours a night The world would be a better place if: People would make decisions with their heart just as much as with their head One thing I’ve learned from working disasters: I can’t choose one, so here are two: The spirit of hope is stronger than any disaster; every crisis gives people the opportunity to become stronger and make things better.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 141 on 09/11/2011

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