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Remembering Irene Fisher

On Saturday, February 4th, UNP founding director Irene Fisher passed away due to causes incident to Parkinson Disease. A wife, mother, grandmother, and friend, Irene dedicated her life to her family and her community. Irene's family is encouraging donations in her memory to University Neighborhood Partners or the Irene Fisher Helping Hands Scholarship.

Irene meant so much to so many people, and her passion and humanity are deeply woven into the fibers of University Neighborhood Partners. We want to take a moment celebrate her life, and hear from some of her closest friends and colleagues in the UNP network.

A celebration of her life will be held Saturday, May 6th from 2pm to 5pm at the This Is The Place Heritage Park. We welcome those who wish to attend as we honor Irene and her legacy. 

It all began in 2001, after several conversations with then U of U President Bernie Machen. I started work with a very general charge to create a partnership between the University and west Salt Lake City neighborhoods. We envisioned a future in which more and more west side youth would pursue higher education. We envisioned U of U participants – faculty, staff, students – working with west Salt Lake – schools, non-profits, community councils, residents – to address social issues that impacted these neighborhoods. We envisioned U of U and neighborhood partnerships that would help lead. At the formal opening of University Neighborhood Partners, I remember President Machen making the statement that, “these neighborhoods represent the future of Salt Lake City.” As a participant in the birth of the friendships, the partnerships, the programs facilitated through UNP, I have come to see the strength and the accuracy of President Machen’s words. Together, people who have spent their entire lives in west Salt Lake, and others who have come from across the globe, are building a shared future that focuses on the best for their children and, in the process, they are a living example of “a community coming together.”

— Irene Fisher, Founding Director 2001-2006

Memories & Moments

We lost our remarkable wife, mother, grandmother and friend to causes incident to Parkinson Disease on February 4, 2023. She was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota to Ferris and Harriet Montgomery. Irene was a graduate of what is now called Northern State University in Aberdeen. She married B. Aubrey Fisher in 1959 and moved to Salt Lake City in 1972, when he joined the faculty of the Communication Department at the University of Utah. Aub Fisher died far too young in 1986. She married A. Craig Hansen in 1990.

Irene devoted her life to her family and her community. She was the president of the Salt Lake League of Women Voters and led the Equal Rights Coalition in the 1970's. She directed Utah Issues, a non-profit voice for Utahns in need. While at Utah Issues she created the organization now known as Voices for Utah Children. She was the founding director of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center at the University of Utah. She and several students, many of whom are now community leaders, created the framework for an organization that has influenced the lives of thousands of university students and Utah residents. She was also the founding director of University Neighborhood Partners, an organization at the U that is bringing the talents and experience of Salt Lake residents together with university students and faculty. She received an honorary doctorate from the U for her exceptional service to the university and community.

She continued her advocacy for the less fortunate among us by serving on the Board of Trustees for Intermountain Healthcare and the Board of Utah Humanities. She was the recipient of too many awards to mention. She encouraged organizations who wanted to present her with an award to give it instead to younger people who were very deserving of such recognition.

She loved being outdoors hiking among wildflowers, skiing, camping, or just relaxing with friends and family. The "Wednesday night hiking group" visited the Wasatch trails from March to November for over 25 years and lives on today as a dinner group.

She is survived by her husband, Craig Hansen, her daughters Lee Knottnerus (John), Terry Fisher-Johnson (Scott), Tracy Severns (Jerry), seven grandchildren, her sisters Carol Bergee and Connie Howitson, her brothers Jim Montgomery and Wayne Montgomery, and countless dear friends. All have been blessed by her unconditional love and learned from her example of a life well lived.

Her family

Irene Fisher leaves a lasting legacy of impact at the University of Utah. Every aspect of her life exemplified service and commitment to community. We’ll forever be grateful for her long-time leadership of the Bennion Center and for founding University Neighborhood Partners. She was a remarkable person and a foundational voice in what this university has become today. 

— University of Utah President Taylor Randall

Irene Fisher, while small in stature, was a giant in transforming lives in the west side of SLC while at the same time helping to transform the University of Utah. We have learned so much from her and follow, carefully and with purpose, in her footsteps to grown and continue the important work Irene started. Irene's leadership that was really about stepping aside and encouraging others to lead. Her gentle support and fierce belief in the power of a "community coming together" was instrumental in the confidence and success of all of us who she mentored and supported. Irene left us a legacy that we will cultivate and care for in a way that we hope will make her proud.

— Jenny Mayer-Glenn, Director of UNP

Irene was the kind of person everyone wanted to follow.  She was this tiny, unassuming package of absolutely tenacious, fierce belief that every person has something valuable to contribute to solving a shared problem.  And that made people believe in themselves, and in her as a guide.  But Irene didn't want people to follow her--she wanted to show people they had the tools to lead themselves.  She infused UNP and everyone in her orbit with that spirit, which rippled out from her in every direction.  We will miss her forever.

I hear Irene's voice in my head all the time, sharing lessons she had learned from her own life.  She had mastered the art of "living with ambiguity", as she put it, which I was terrible at.  Most of us are taught to plan things out to get the outcome you think is best.  But for her, "Sometimes moving forward feels like you are walking in the dark with a flashlight that only shines just ahead of each footstep.  You can't see where you're going, but you have to trust that if you are careful with each footstep then it will lead you in the right direction."  For Irene, life and work were emergent, always developing in unpredictable ways from the people involved.  It was the only way to respect the power of those people coming together--you had to leave room for whatever was going to grow.  That required giving up control, but for Irene giving up control was the most powerful part.

— Sarah Munro

We are so sorry to hear that the end is near for our beloved Irene. She has been such a blessing to all of us. Her quiet gentle perceptive insight, compassion, and strength have enriched all of our lives. Watching her as she has collaboratively helped build a sense of community and inclusion wherever she has gone has given us all a vision of what needs to be. We will miss her, but always remember her. We pray that her family will be comforted with the wonderful heritage she leaves behind as they mourn her passing. She was a particular treasure to us personally. 

With all our love,

— Dick & Sue Jacobsen

Irene was instrumental in bringing community together and various stakeholders to develop the vision and core values of UNP.  She was able to build trust in SLCs Westside and their residents that will impact generations to come.  I am forever grateful for her friendship, transparency and thoughtful care of everyone she encountered.

— Maria Garciaz

Irene Fisher had a gift for opening spaces for people to speak and allow their voices to be heard in all their diversity. She was a deep and thoughtful listener. I remember participating in listening sessions with her when she was engaged in conversations that led to the establishment of University Neighborhood Partners. I learned so much from her example.

Irene was also persuasive and had a real capacity to shift institutions to deepen commitments for the common good. The impact of the spaces for relationship building she constructed have rippled across our campus and communities, leading to lasting change.

— Susie Porter

I met Irene over two decades ago and at the time I was a young community activist with a passion to serve and represent the west side but I lacked the tools to do those things effectively. One day, following a community meeting, she turned to me and said, “Do you want a job?”. Without even knowing what the job was I said yes. I knew she was leading the efforts to increase college enrolment in my neighborhood and I absolutely wanted to be part of that – for myself and for my community. Her offer of employment changed the trajectory of my life in profound ways. She taught me to be the best kind of leader. She showed me that I had more strength than I knew. She reminded me that positively impacting the life of one person would always be worth the effort. May we all embody our best Irene Fisher by leading with compassion, authentically showing up for others and ourselves, inspiring the next generation of leaders, and never forgetting the histories that we carry and exist in.

— Kate Rubalcava

I met Irene after joining the UNP team in 2007, by then I had already heard her story and all the work it took to get UNP started. But I had no idea how the stories compared with the real person. I remember meeting her during one of her visits to the UNP house, she joined a meeting that I was also part of, I remember I felt intimidated but as the meeting went on and I heard the way she spoke about our community, and the love that she clearly felt for our mission, I understood why she was so loved. At this moment, I only feel gratitude for meeting her, gratitude for having the opportunity to learn from her work, and gratitude because she existed and I have been able to see, first hand, the lives of people being changed because of UNP. So, thank you Irene.

— Brizia Ceja

Irene Fisher has been a dear friend and mentor. I am so grateful for her tireless efforts to make our communities more connected and better places for all to live and be participants in..  I appreciate the model she put in place to encourage young people to be community leaders and have a voice, so that when they mature and move into full adulthood, they have a pattern of collaboration and grass root community building. I have benefited immensely by Irene’s compassion and action. She is a true hero in my life and her legacy lives in through the great work of others, specifically through the work of University Neighborhood Partners and the Bennion Center. Even more importantly, her legacy lives in the hearts and minds of those in community that work to build connections.

— Linda Dunn, Former Bennion Center Director

When I think of Irene I think of love.  I think of trust.  I think of her straight posture, her love of nature, her ironclad belief in people to do the right thing, and her incredible knowledge about how to support us all to work together.  She never minced her words and when she spoke we all listened because we knew we were in the presence of greatness.  Over the last year, I have spent countless hours with the UNP staff revisiting the values and principals she created 20 years ago with the community.  Throughout this process, I have again and again been stopped in my tracks…thinking to myself and saying to others…”How did she do it?  The values and principals still stand solid!  They are timeless.”   What a gift she had and what a set of gifts she gave us.  I am forever grateful to her for her incredible work and personally, for the tender and kind way in which she always treated me.

— Kimberly Schmit


Make a Donation in Irene's Name

Irene's family is encouraging friends to honor her with a donation to UNP.