MADISON - Irene Ilgen died on Dec. 22, 2020, at the age of 98. She lived a remarkable and active life and was a 70-year resident of Madison. She will be missed by her family and the many friends she made in Wisconsin, across the country, and around the world. Irene was born in Markesan, Wis., in 1922 and grew up with her four older brothers on a dairy farm north of Green Lake. With few female playmates in this country setting, she was very close to her mother, who instilled a love of learning and a desire to see the wider world. She graduated from Green Lake High School at the age of 16 and was the first in her family to graduate from college, majoring in biology at Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha in 1942. This was wartime. After graduating from college, she taught biology for a short time in Fort Atkinson and then volunteered to teach radio mechanics to servicemen at Truax Field. It was there that she met her future husband, Joe, and they married in 1944.
Following the war, Joe took a job with the Wisconsin Power and Light Company where he worked until his untimely death in 1975. The couple lived first in Ripon, Wis., and moved to Madison in 1950. While her children were young, Irene devoted most of her time to their needs and household affairs as well as to volunteer activities in the Madison community. Among her special interests were church school teaching, the Girl Scouts, the Madison Friends of International Students, and improved television programming for children. In 1960, Irene took a job in the UW's Zoology Department where she prepared and taught laboratories in comparative anatomy, embryology, and parasitology. She worked closely with professors and many generations of graduate student assistants. Upon retirement, she was granted emeritus status, a distinction rarely accorded to university staff.
Perhaps in reaction to the isolated upbringing in rural Wisconsin, Irene became an irrepressible traveler. On a tight budget that was aided by family camping gear, she organized trips to the east, west, and south, educating the family about the history of the country while exposing them to its many natural wonders. With her children grown, she expanded her horizons with several trips to Europe with her husband. After his passing, she travelled with Elder Hostel and Friendship Force. When a national Friendship Force conference met in Madison some years ago, Irene met with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter who were strong advocates of the reciprocal exchanges promoted by the organization. A believer in personal diplomacy, she chose trips that featured stays in the homes of local citizens. Among 60 international trips, she visited South Africa, Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China, India, Turkey and Ecuador. She rode the Moscow subway and introduced herself to fellow riders by sharing pictures of her family. When the itinerary permitted, she visited former UW graduate students she had befriended in Madison.
While her travel surely earned her the title of global citizen or American ambassador, Irene remained firmly rooted in Madison and the state of Wisconsin. She liked nothing better than showing international visitors what made Madison and Wisconsin special. A tireless advocate for the development of the Madison Civic Center, she was a regular participant in Madison's Civics Club. She made countless contributions to the life of First Congregational Church and was an early supporter of Madison Friends of International Students. Irene was a life-long benefactor and consumer of all of the arts and cultural activities that the city and the university offered to residents of all ages. She particularly loved music, singing whenever an occasion arose and playing the piano all of her life. She gave of her time and resources to political issues about which she cared deeply and was not reluctant to speak forcefully when circumstances required.
Perhaps what family and friends will most miss about Irene was her engaging sociability, her ability to talk and interact with people from all walks of life. She showed genuine interest in peoples' lives, their families, and their communities. When she turned 80, she hosted a party of 80 of her close friends, many of whom did not know one another. At one point, she introduced each of the 80 attendees individually, explaining later that she thought that knowing something about individual guests would facilitate meaningful connections among them. Irene also earned the reputation as an organizer extraordinaire. If you wanted your function to run smoothly or for the agenda of a meeting to be productive, you put Irene in charge.
Irene's love for her family was boundless. Nothing gave her greater pleasure than time spent with her children and their families. When her three grandsons turned 13, she took each of them on a bus trip of the "historic east," hands-on preparation for the study of American history. She was also determined to sustain ties with extended family by organizing holiday gatherings and family reunions. As the family matriarch, she was a regular resource and confidant for those facing life's challenges.
Irene was pre-deceased by her husband, Joe, the love of her life, and her daughter, Jane, who died in November of this year. She is survived by her son, Tom Ilgen and wife, Christine, of Claremont, Calif.; her grandson, Jonathan Ilgen and wife, Ann, of Seattle, Wash.; her grandson, Colin Ilgen of Claremont, Calif.; her grandson, Adam Whitacre and wife, Jenny, of Madison; and her great-granddaughters, Hannah Irene and Grace Marie Ilgen of Seattle, Wash.
A celebration of Irene Ilgen's life will be held later in 2021 when family and friends can gather. In lieu of flowers, a fitting tribute would be a gift to Pilgrim Center, United Church Camps, W1010 Spring Grove Road, Ripon, WI 54971 or the Prairie Spring Environmental Education Center at Carroll University, 100 N. East Ave., Waukesha, WI 53186.
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Cress Funeral & Cremation Service
3610 Speedway Road, Madison