Grocer with inspiring spirit will be missed
The Madras community lost the happy smiles and optimistic personality of well-known grocery employee Robert Irey, who passed away unexpectedly on Aug. 19, at the age of 52.
"He was the face of our store, had no malice and was pure of heart. Things were pretty somber in the store after we heard he passed," said Kevin Eidemiller, co-manager of Erickson's Thriftway in Madras, where Irey worked and greeted customers for 33 years.
Store co-manager Dawn Stetcher, who worked with Irey all that time, said Irey had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure a couple of years ago, then got pneumonia a month ago and was hospitalized for a week. He had just started coming back to work part time, when he was found passed away at home.
The son of Richard and Willamae Irey, Irey grew up and attended Madras High School with younger brothers Jeff and Richie. In high school, he enjoyed being a Special Olympics athlete and competed in Nordic skiing, cross country skiing, bowling and basketball events.
After graduating from MHS in 1986, Irey got a job at Erickson's grocery as a box boy and courtesy clerk.
During training, Eidemiller noted, "He learned about being friendly to the public, greeting people and asking if they needed anything — and he just went nuts with that and (by his example) set up good groundwork for that."
In a few years, Irey was promoted to frozen food manager, and did the store's frozen food ordering. "He was so proud of that, and on his desk he had a cardboard sign that said 'It will be OK,'" Eidemiller said, indicating Irey could handle any problems.
"He was very capable, and if I couldn't remember something, he was my resource," Eidemiller admitted. "He was quick with his wit and a delight to be around. He was always happy, and if he wasn't, he didn't let it show."
Stetcher agreed, "Robert had the best one-liners and popped those things out like crazy, keeping us in stitches."
Besides being a co-worker, Stetcher and her husband Bruce teamed up with Irey outside of work to raise funds for Special Olympics.
Bruce Stetcher, now a retired Oregon State Police trooper, and other local officers had been raising a few hundred dollars a year for the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which benefits Special Olympics. Then Irey joined the effort.
"In 1993, Robert and I went around, I in uniform and him in his Special Olympics jersey, to area merchants and service clubs to solicit funds for the Torch Run. I'd tell about the run, then Robert would get up and speak and did such a good job that he was instrumental in raising thousands of dollars for Special Olympics," Bruce Stetcher said.
Irey played basketball with both Stetchers on a Jefferson County unified team (two non-Special Olympics players and three players with disabilities) for several years, and later became a Special Olympics coach.
In 2010, concerns about being overweight and having a family history of heart problems prompted Irey to start exercising. "He loved going to the pool and talked about the exercises and losing weight," Dawn Stetcher said.
He signed up for and completed the 3-mile Freeze Your Fanny walk in December, then set his sights on the July 4, Todd Beamer walk/run. Since it was a more strenuous 6-mile event, he trained by walking everywhere from his home on First Street, including the industrial park to pay his garbage bill and Juniper Hills Park. When temperatures got into the high 90s, he kept walking and began to see results.
"I lost 90 pounds in the process. I feel great and have more energy now," he said in an article in The Pioneer.
The morning of July 4, he boarded the bus full of other athletes and rode to the drop-off point. One hour and 49 minutes later, Irey crossed the finish line at Sahalee Park to a clapping crowd. "When I crossed the finish line, it really clicked in my head — 'I really accomplished something,'" he told The Pioneer proudly. Later, he and his brother Richie did the Beamer 2-mile walks together up until last summer.
In 2014, Irey started self-publishing cookbooks to help people struggling with menu ideas. "He loved cooking, and the recipes and cookbooks were his passion," Stetcher said.
Irey's dad was a cook at The Stag Restaurant and his mother was a waitress. But when Robert was 13, his dad was recovering from back surgery, and his mother told him, "Son, you need to make dinner," as she went off to work.
With his dad's encouragement, he branched out from heating up cans of soup, to making full meals. He also took home economics cooking classes at MHS. After he began working at Erickson's, customers kept asking him for dinner ideas, which gave him the idea to publish a series of "Chef Bob" cookbooks, which he sold at Erickson's for $10.
Many of the recipes were from his dad and his grandmother, Lucile Hammett. "It was always Dad's dream to have his recipes published and I thought, I could do that," Irey said in a Madras Pioneer article about his cookbooks. Two years ago, he became active in the Madras Saturday Market with a booth featuring his cookbooks.
Eidemiller laughed, "Employees gave him a hard time at the store because he was in The Pioneer way more than they were."
Richie Irey said he and Robert liked to fish, hang out and cook together, adding, "We got the cooking bug from our dad." They worked together at Erickson's for nine years, but now Richie Irey lives in Culver and is an in-home caregiver.
"I'm in awe that he spent 33 years in the grocery business. I wish I could say that," Richie Irey said of his older brother.
Many who grew up with Robert Irey in the Madras area were saddened by his death. Brian Bushlach, who was raised in Madras and now lives in the Seattle area, reached out to the Pioneer to note, "Robert was always a special guy. I remember even way back in grade school, he was always smiling, always happy. He loved people and everybody loved him."
A memorial for Robert Irey will be held at 11 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Jefferson County Senior Center, followed by a potluck featuring Chef Bob recipes. Erickson's has set up three memory boards at a check stand for customers and community members to write messages for the family, which will be used at the memorial. Donations to help with expenses may be made at Erickson's, or to an account in Robert Irey's name at Mid Oregon Credit Union.
It will be a time to share memories and celebrate Robert Irey's life. "He would want us to be happy, not sad," Richie Irey said.
Remembering Irey, Dawn Stetcher said, "He was an all-around good guy. You don't realize what you had until you lose it. He was very gentle hearted."
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