Irene Byrd Shepard was born on June 28, 1940 to parents I.V. Byrd and Sarah Watson Byrd in Attapulgus, GA. From her mom’s two marriages, she was the oldest of four born to her parents, but the oldest of nine born to her mother.
Irene grew up with very humble beginnings in southwest Georgia. She attended school as a young child but also worked in the fields with her elders. She spent a great deal of time around cousins, aunts, uncles, and her paternal grandparents, especially after their mother departed due to serious domestic issues with her father. She and her sisters would then spend their remaining childhood being raised primarily by their grandmother, Rosalee Byrd.
Irene enjoyed school and learning. Teachers were very fond of her—including one in particular named Vera Shepard Conyers. After graduating from high school June 1959, Mrs. Conyers asked Irene if she wanted to move to New York City with her and her family. With blessings from Grandma Rosalee, Irene moved to New York City with Mrs. Conyers, where they resided in a Brooklyn brownstone, affectionately known by its address—47 Pulaski Street.
There, Irene met Beulah Shepard (McKay), the niece of Mrs. Conyers. Irene and Beulah became roommates, friends, and later, sisters-in-law, when Irene met Beulah’s brother, Randolph (Doc), and they married in January 1960. Because 47 Pulaski was home to Randolph’s aunts, who were members of the Nation of Islam, Randolph and Irene also had to join the Nation in order to live as a couple in the family’s brownstone building.
Irene was very intelligent, creative, with excellent perception. Doc was very innovative and quite brilliant, actually, when it came to making something out of nothing or making something better than it was before. Additionally, Irene also possessed such skills, which often showed in her cooking and sewing.
When Randolph created the recipe for a beef sausage, Irene helped perfect it, as his “taste consultant”, recommending what to add or alter in the spice profile. The final product would become a known staple, sold for years in their NOI community, as well as with both sides of their families, friends, and others.
Irene and Doc wanted a family and their first-born son, Derrick, was born December 1961. They would welcome second son Roderick (Rod) in February 1963, and later, daughter Fathiyah (“Fay”) in September 1966. By this time, Doc and Irene had relocated their family to a nearby neighborhood in Brooklyn, where they raised their children into adulthood.
They spent those years experiencing many levels of joy, as well as hardship. Regular gatherings with extensive members of the Shepard family, who lived in the NY/NJ/PA area, and occasional visits with her NJ/GA/FL Byrd family members made for exciting times, as they raised their family to understand and value family connections and relationships. These times were and will remain invaluable.
One fond memory spoken of, by family and friends, is the welcomed feeling when they visited, especially if greeted by one of Irene’s home-cooked meals. Doc and Irene hosted gatherings, dinners, parties and game nights for family and friends on holidays, other special occasions, and just because it was Friday or Saturday night! And sometimes family and friends would just drop by. Visitors were always welcomed.
In her young mom days, Irene made a lot of her own clothes. Her very young daughter always watching and admiring her, she would sew an outfit for herself, then make something in the remaining fabric for her daughter, often coordinating their looks. To date, her daughter has in her collection of treasures, a few of her favorites made by Mom.
Irene was a teacher and nurturer by nature. When her children were very young, she worked in their school briefly as a teacher’s aide, however her greatest credit as a teacher was with her own children and two granddaughters. Diligently helping her boys with homework and more, she was surprised to discover that by reading to her toddler daughter, she also had prepped her to enter pre-k as a reader. But most of all, she was a life-lesson teacher to her younger generations.
Irene was often admired for her taste in clothes and jewelry. She took great pride in her appearance and wardrobe choices and was always well-dressed, with hair done. In the 1970s, Irene began her long career with music publishing and performing rights company, Broadcast Music, Inc. Irene enjoyed her work, even with its occasional challenges, but there, she also made many lifelong friends. Her children loved to visit her at work, but her time at BMI was especially influential on her son Rod. Irene was humble about who she knew, but she proudly introduced her son to celebrities who often stopped by the BMI office. She supported the interests of all of her children and grandchildren, and encouraged them to explore their passions and gifts. She was very proud of their accomplishments.
Unfortunately, Doc and Irene divorced in 1987. Seeing the sadness in her mother, her daughter encouraged her to learn how to drive and strengthen her independence. In 1986, Irene got her driver’s license, was gifted her first makeover, and never looked back! Together, she and her daughter would buy their first car. Both being able to drive now, this began a long history of memorable road trips for the pair. Irene remained a much-loved part of the Shepard family. This was always something she considered a very special blessing, especially because these relationships lasted entire lifetimes. Always proud of her roots as a Byrd, the Shepards were also an important part of her family.
In 1991, Irene left New York City and relocated to Nashville, TN with BMI. Through a coworker, she was introduced to the teachings and fellowship of Jackson Street Missionary Baptist Church, where the Rev. N. Curtis Bryant presided. She became a member—his actual first member—and she faithfully served until he transitioned to a new church. A dedicated Christian woman, Irene decided to continue growing in her faith-walk under Pastor Bryant’s spiritual leadership. There, at Greater Heights Missionary Baptist Church, she also became one of his first members. She loved being a part of the GHMBC family, where she, again, faithfully served, as usher, a member of the Mother’s Board, and more, for the rest of her days. She attended regularly until Covid and her health kept her away. After that, she faithfully tuned in virtually, as she also did with her brother in law’s Alvin’s service from Saint Haven Ministry Church of God in Christ, in Arizona. She enjoyed singing and listening to gospel music, especially praise and worship songs.
Irene loved her new town of residence, and in 2000, she proudly purchased a beautiful home of her own. She was an excellent steward of this blessing she knew was from God. A nature lover, she enjoyed gardening and even was awarded best yard by her home association. She also enjoyed making things with her hands, such as arts and crafts.
In 2007, Irene retired from BMI. She was an amazing grandmother, as much as she was a fantastic mother. She felt very blessed by the irony that her only two grands were born 24 years apart. This, however, enabled her to spend unlimited time with each, until at least both were near their teens, and that included various road trips and fun times with each. She was humored by their competition for her, and fascinated that as very young children, they both came up similar nicknames for her! In fact, humor was one of her greatest qualities, as she loved to laugh, crack jokes, tease others in fun, and just enjoy living. Retirement led to a life of leisure, but again, after Covid hit, Irene relaxed but stayed busy at home and enjoyed doing puzzles, watching her soaps, favorite gameshows, animal programs, serving the Lord, being Mom, Grandma, Auntie, Sis, Cousin, and Friend to those she loved and cared for. She also loved chatting it up daily with her youngest granddaughter, who kept her energized with laughter and love.
Her children and grandchildren were her pride. Irene is survived by her three children, Derrick (Loren), Rod (Iris), and Fathiyah, former son-in-law Morro, granddaughters Amber and Amira, sisters Rachel and Hazel, devoted in-laws, nieces and nephews, and other loving family members—both by blood-relation and marriage—as well as many friends, former colleagues, and her church family. How she loved others will live on in all she touched and cared for.