Bill Irwin only blind thru hiker on Appalachian Trail passes away

Bill Irwin Blind Courage

Bill Irwin Blind Courage

Bill Irwin, famous blind AT thru-hiker, dies after battle with cancer
By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff
Posted March 07, 2014, at 4:05 p.m.

Bill Irwin, the only blind person to have completed the Appalachian Trail with his dog Orient. Bill Irwin, the only blind person to solo hike the entire Appalachian Trail, died on March 1 at age 73, after a two-year battle with cancer. His life story is, without a doubt, an inspiring one — for outdoorsmen, for addicts, for Christians or for anyone cast into darkness, struggling to find their way.

“I think in the age of heroism and how we view it, Bill made me realize that there are real heroes out there, and that these real heroes have their own struggles, just like we do,” said Michael “Clint” Ross, who considers Irwin to be his personal hero.

“But what makes them heroes,” Ross continued, “is the fact that they persevere through it all.”

Irwin wasn’t born blind. An Alabama native, he enjoyed an early career as a medical technologist, chemist, teacher and founder of Birmingham Clinical Laboratories. But things quickly headed south as he fell victim to alcoholism. He struggled through four failed marriages. And at the age of 28, he lost sight in his left eye due to a rare eye disease. By age 36, he was completely blind.

Everything turned around in 1987, when Irwin became a Christian and surrendered his life to God. This spiritual awakening marked the start of a new life and career as a health consultant, speaker, family and marriage counselor and author.

Three years later, he set out to do what most people would say is impossible. At age 50 — without compass, map or GPS — Irwin set out to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,100-mile hiking trail spanning from Georgia to Maine, with his guide dog, Orient.

Marked with white paint, the AT travels over high peaks and winds through deep woods. It crosses rivers and roads and boulder fields as it traverses 14 states.

“He was on a mission for God — he would call it a Christian mission,” Ross said. “For me, there were two sides to it — the miraculous and the absurd. It is absolutely miraculous that a blind man and his dog could do this alone, and that he lived. But it’s also absurd, meaning why would he do this? Why would anyone do this? And it just became — I just saw him as a true hero. This guy put his life on the line so that he could do something no one else has done and to meet people and encourage them along the way.”

Though it took him eight months, Irwin completed the trail, ending in November of 1990 in Baxter State Park. He recounts the journey in the 1991 book “Blind Courage,” co-authored by David McCasland.

“I’ve hiked the AT three times,” said Phil Pepin, who hiked with Irwin for 10 days during his 1990 AT thru-hike. “I’ve said it so many times; It’s so difficult to hike it with sight, never mind to hike it without sight. But he was just an incredible, totally remarkable man.”

Pepin recalls hiking with Irwin along an especially hairy section in Rangeley, where a hurricane had knocked trees across the trail. It took them a full day to hike just 4 miles.

“Climbing over and around blowdowns, it was just miserable travel,” Pepin said. “Irwin would slip and fall and pick himself right back up. He was wearing shin guards at the time because he’d fallen so much. He had big scars on his knees … I don’t ever recall him muttering a bad word. He wouldn’t. It was just part of the course.”

After completing the trail in 1990, life continued to look up for Irwin, who married his best friend, Debra, in 1996. The couple then moved to Sebec, Maine, where they enjoyed hiking, camping, kayaking, snowshoeing and biking with friends and family.

When Ross reached out to the famous thru-hiker in November 2012, Irwin was in the process of battling prostate cancer. Having read “Blind Courage,” Ross, a filmmaker from Georgia, was interested in creating an independent film about Irwin’s story.

“When the email came through, he was with his pastor and his wife and his pastor’s wife, praying and talking about the next steps for Bill,” Ross said.

Intrigued, Irwin invited Ross to visit him at his home in Sebec. The two men connected, and Ross returned home with Irwin’s blessing to create the film. Over the past year, Ross has been working on the script, gleaning details from Irwin during monthly meetings.

“Bill wanted to hold on more than anything for a filmmaker who was going to make his story as God-centered as possible but true to the story,” Ross said. “We both agreed it’s not like we want to smack people over the head with Jesus and the Bible. We wanted this to be a film about courage and faith, and by the end, it will be obvious where Bill got that from.”

Ross predicts the script for “Blind Courage” the film will be finished in just a few months, then filming will begin, putting it on track for a 2015 release.

“He just had a lot of faith,” Ross said. “Bill inspired me to look at my life and to just keep going — whether it’s on the script, my career, my family — to just keep going and have a good attitude.”

To his last day, Irwin served as director of Free Indeed Ministries, helping those suffering from addictions as he did. When bedridden, he counseled people from his bed. His motto, “Never lose faith and never give up.”

He is survived by his wife, Debra; his four children, Marianne Cash, Billy Irwin, Jeff Irwin and Amanda McCroy; four grandchildren, Gabriel Irwin, Jake Irwin, Madison Cash and Grayson Cash; sister, Midge Irwin “Mary”; brother, Lynn Irwin; niece, Kristi Healy; and many loving cousins and friends.

Irwin requested that upon his death, his body be donated to the University of Tennessee for scientific research and education in the department of anthropology to help others.

“This was Bill’s way,” wrote Debra Irwin in a Facebook post about Irwin’s wishes.

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An American Hero Pennsylvania born

Photo of Jim Irwin on the moon, given to me by PA House of Rep. signed by Col Irwin

Photo of Jim Irwin on the moon, given to me by PA House of Rep. signed by Col Irwin

I know I have mentioned it several times, however I feel it bears repeating again, especially now that we have a commissioner in CO. and you will see why.
This brings Mid Atlantic and Colorado together in a common thread.

COL. James B. Irwin USAF-Astronaut and one of only 12 men to have walked on the surface of the moon, was born here in Pennsylvania. Outside Pittsburgh in a little town called Seldom Seen Pa., the same year my dad, James W. Irwin was born, also in the same town.

So I guess part of the moon now belongs to Clan Irwin, (what do ya think?) Maybe I’ll photoshop a photo of castle Drum on the Lunar landscape.
Anyway Col Irwin’s birthday is March 17. After he left NASA he started the High Flight Foundation, which is headquartered in Colorado. A couple of years ago I phoned Joy Irwin out there and relayed my family history and promised to get back in touch with her.

Well here is the oportunity for our new Commissioner to reach out if he so wishes, (and anyone else in CIA that may have an interest in Col Irwin and what he did after his historic flight.) For instance did you know he went in search of Noah’s Ark?
If you may be interested here is some contact information.

High Flight Foundation
4365 Scotch Pine Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80920
Phone: 917-945-9457


Posted in Celtic, Clan Irwin, Clan Irwin Association, March, spring, Uncategorized, VETERAN | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Let us not forget Col. John Irwin- founder Irwin PA.


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Mid-Atlantic Irwin’s helped create history during countries bid for independence

Final rsesting place of "Molly Pitcher", Carlsile Old Graveyard. Soldier; "Capt" Dylan Thomas A.O.H.Photo by Dave Thomas

Final rsesting place of “Molly Pitcher”, Carlsile Old Graveyard. Soldier; “Capt” Dylan Thomas A.O.H.Photo by Dave Thomas

I’ve been researching early Pennsylvania history for an article I’m working on for the Army, specifically Pennsylvania’s contribution to the Early American Army (Continental Army created June 14, 1775)
And as luck would have it I found some interesting Irwin ties. I’ve already posted articles about General (Dr.) William Irvine, but there is more to his story. More on that in a minute.
The first commissioned Col in the new Army was William Thompson, and his battalion came to be known as Thompson’s Rifle battalion or the 1st Pennsylvania battalion. This unit saw action in every major battle of the war and were deadly marksmen, using the Pennsylvania long rifle in lieu of the muskets issued to most units. Pvt. Murphy from this unit is credited with firing the shot that caused the surrender at Yorktown.
As the unit enlisted its ranks from central PA, its’ ranks swelled with Irish and Scotch-Irish (Ulster Scots) and went on to enlist German immigrants in Berks county. Well as history would have it one Charles Irwin was one of the first to enlist, so far I have no other information regarding other than he was not captured or killed while in the battalion.

Other officers that served during the period (and if their home of record is known) are Capt. James Irvin (Philadelphia county), Quartermaster General Mathew Irvin, James Irvine, Major General and Commander at Fort Pitt, Lt. Col. Samuel Irvine (Cumberland county), Captain James Irwin (Cumberland county), Captain Samuel Irwin (York) Captain Nathaniel Irwin (Chester).

So now with the rest of the story, many know the story of Molly Pitcher hero of the battle of Monmouth, who took over her husband’s cannon position when he became wounded. She is also known as Mary Ludwig Hays McCauly, Mary Hays, Mary Ludwig (or Ludwick), Mary McCauly (various spellings), Sergeant Molly, Captain Molly. Her grave is now located in Carlisle alongside other Revolutionary heroes, like William Thompson.

So how does she tie in with the Irwin family? Well About 1769, Mary went to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to be a servant to the family of Anna and Dr. William Irvine. (did I ever mention that the author is William and my wife Anna? go figure.) There, she married William Hays (or John Casper Hays, according to some sources) on July 24, 1769.

Dr. Irvine organized a boycott of British goods in response to the British Tea Act in 1774; William Hayes was listed as one helping with the boycott. On December 1, 1775, William Hays enlisted in the First Pennsylvania Regiment of Artillery, in a unit commanded by Dr. Irvine (also called General Irwin in some sources). A year later, January 1777, he joined the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment.
After her husband’s enlistment, Mary Hays first stayed in Carlisle, then joined her parents where she was closer to her husband’s regiment. Mary became a camp follower, one of the many women attached to a military camp to take care of support tasks such as laundry, cooking, sewing and other tasks.

In 1778, William Hays trained as an artilleryman under Baron von Steuben; the camp followers were taught to serve as water girls.

William Hays was with the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment when, as part of George Washington’s army, the Battle of Monmouth was fought with British troops on June 28, 1778. William (John) Hays’ job was to load the cannon, wielding a ramrod. According to the stories told later, Mary Hays was among the women bringing pitchers of water to the soldiers, to cool the soldiers as well as to cool the cannon and soak the rammer rag.

On that hot day, carrying water, the story told is that Mary saw her husband collapse — whether from the heat or from being wounded is not clear, though he certainly was not killed — and stepped in to clean the ramrod and load the cannon herself, continuing until the end of the battle that day. In one variation of the story, she helped her husband fire the cannon.

According to the oral tradition, Mary was nearly hit by a musket or cannon ball that sped between her legs and ripped her dress. She is said to have responded, “Well, that could have been worse.”

Supposedly George Washington had seen her action on the field, and after the British retreated unexpectedly rather than continuing the fight the next day, Washington made Mary Hays a non-commissioned officer in the army for her deed. Mary apparently began calling herself “Sergeant Molly” from that day forward.

Posted in Clan Irwin, Clan Irwin Association, March, Uncategorized, VETERAN | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Honor a Clan Irwin Association member

ServiceAward Clan Irwin Association, Mid Atlantic Region, and the PA Commissioner are asking for nominations from our organization for the Presidents Volunteer Service Award.
The PRESIDENT’S VOLUNTEER SERVICE AWARD is a prestigious national honor offered in recognition of sustained volunteer service.
Established in 2003, the PRESIDENT’S VOLUNTEER SERVICE AWARD gives Presidential recognition to individuals, families and groups who have demonstrated a sustained commitment to volunteer service each year. The AWARD shares this achievement as a way to inspire others to contribute to their communities through volunteer service and to make volunteer service a central part of their lives.
The AWARD is available on an annual basis and is an honor that every American – from all ages and all walks of life.
In recent years Mid-Atlantic, Tidewater, Guy, Barbara and Sherrie have all been presented with the award, as well as groups and individuals who have worked with us. Now we want to reach out to you for nominations. Especially for our young members and anyone associated with our organization that you think may be deserving.
This award is our way of saying THANK YOU for being a member of our organization, and thanks for all you do.
Volunteering can be simply put as anything you do not get paid for (or have been court ordered to perform.)
Please contact the PA. Commissioner, Bill Irwin at or with ANY questions or your nominations.

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How to Beat Cabin Fever



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Clan Irwin at Dining In



053145With the Scottish celebration commemorating poet Robert Burns day approaching, Camp #1739 of the Scottish American Military Society conducted a dining in at MAEWYNS Pub in York on Jan. 18. on site were three CIA members, Jennifer March, Ann Irwin and Bill Irwin. During the evenings activities several awards were presented including two Presidents Volunteer Service Awards, one to Nathan Ferguson and one to the Lewis B Puller Jr. Marine Corps League Detachment #524.

SAMS Camp 1739 Commander Eric Ferguson presented the awards.

The PRESIDENT’S VOLUNTEER SERVICE AWARD is a prestigious national honor offered in recognition of sustained volunteer service.
Established in 2003, the PRESIDENT’S VOLUNTEER SERVICE AWARD gives Presidential recognition to individuals, families and groups who have demonstrated a sustained commitment to volunteer service each year. The AWARD shares this achievement as a way to inspire others to contribute to their communities through volunteer service and to make volunteer service a central part of their lives.

The AWARD is available on an annual basis and is an honor that every American – from all ages and all walks of life.

It was announced at the presentation that more than 15 Marines (members of the detachment,) will be receiving a PVSA pin for their volunteer efforts done on behalf of the Detachment, these awards will be presented at a later date at the Ancient Order of Hibernians Award ceremony.

Detachment #524 was presented a GOLD President’s Award in recognition of their more than 1,000 combined hours of Volunteer service in the community and Nathan Ferguson was presented a Bronze award for his efforts in the community.

Also during the ceremony CIA PA Commissioner Bill Irwin was awarded with The Marine Corps League Distinguished Citizen Bronze Medal, and the SAMS Medal.

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