Iris W. Buhl, a Nashville native and outspoken LGBTQ+ advocate and philanthropist, died Aug. 11, 2020, at the age of 77.
Buhl began familiarizing herself with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s when her son required multiple blood transfusions due to a heart condition. Her research unexpectedly led to a deeper understanding of the inequities and stigmas associated with the LGBTQ community, which changed the course of her life, and the lives of many others.
Buhl told Out and About Nashville in 2007, “When I began volunteering with Nashville CARES (in 1987), I had no idea I knew any gay people except, of course, John Bridges… As time passed I became more familiar with what folks have to put up with simply to live as themselves.”
Buhl became the face of Nashville CARES for many years, first as a volunteer, then development director and a member of the board of directors.
“She went on, in her indomitable way, to become deeply involved in CARES,” said Nashville author John Bridges. “All of that led her to learn to love—and to be loved by—gay people. Iris received many awards, all of them recognizing her dauntless work in support of human rights, voting rights, women’s reproductive rights and the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution. She was a great, irreplaceable, woman. She was fearless.”
Buhl was appointed by Mayor Bill Purcell to the Charitable Solicitations Board of Metropolitan Nashville, which she chaired for two years. She was also appointed to the Metro Nashville Human Relations Commission. In 2007, she won the Nashville Human Rights Campaign Ally Award, the first straight person to receive the award. Buhl received the Community Nashville 2013 Human Relations Award, the Thomas J. Powell Award for Community Service, and a Certificate of Appreciation from Governor Bill Haslam in 2014.
“Iris and her husband Mike were deeply committed to issues of social justice,” said Joe Interrante, retired CEO of Nashville CARES. “Iris in particular had little tolerance for gestures that she saw as merely performative. But she never attacked or challenged aggressively; she would ask questions to force someone to think about what they were doing and why they were doing it. Watching her do this could be quite entertaining. She was one of my closest friends. I will miss her terribly, and I’ll never forget her.”
Steve Sirls and Allen DeCuyper spent many years working with Iris on community service work and considered her a close friend. They said she could be exacting when organizing such fundraisers as Artrageous, but it was all in the pursuit of excellence.
“Iris was our friend, mentor, teacher, and keeper of the ways to do many things in life correctly,” the couple told Out and About Nashville. “She was so committed to Nashville CARES. She would call and say, ‘This is what you have to do,’ and of course we would round up the troops and get it done.”
Interior designer Ralph Cadenhead counted Buhl among his clients and his closest friends.
“I first knew her the year I co-chaired Artrageous, and we became fast friends,” Cadenhead said. “Iris never failed to stand up for what was just and what was right, regardless of the consequences. She was tough, she was fearless and she was formidable. But just as much, she was fair, generous, kind—and she was always a lady. Iris gave her voice, her resources and her time to the causes she held dear. Nashville CARES, of course, was at the very top of that list. Her legacy will carry on for years to come.”
Buhl earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1964 and a Master of Arts degree in special education in 1974 at George Peabody College before its merger with Vanderbilt University. While an undergraduate, she participated in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as working with a project studying changes in racial attitudes.
After graduation she worked at the Regional Intervention Program training parents of developmentally disabled children. She was the second president of the auxiliary board of the University School of Nashville in the history of the school, and she was a member of the school’s Board of Trustees from 1981 to 1985.
She is preceded in death by her husband, Arthur H. (Mike) Buhl III, and is survived by her son, Michael Higgins Buhl, her brother, Stephen Byrne Willoughby, and her nephew, Sean Stephen Willoughby.
Memorial gifts may be made to The Buhl Family Fund of The Community Foundation, Nashville CARES, and The University School of Nashville.