~story and photo by Chrissy Alspaugh
Bob Kirlin’s resume is riddled with titles including CEO, president, chairman, and broker.
But don’t be fooled—his heart always has been on stage.
That’s great news for Brown County Playhouse, one of the many organizations to which Kirlin devotes his time and talent. He is the chairman of the playhouse board of directors, which assumed operational duties of the theater in February, when Executive Director Suzannah Zody became ill.
Kirlin, also associate broker at Carpenter Realtors, said it’s been “a pleasure” to work more intimately with the playhouse this spring. “I might be weird,” he said, chuckling, “but I absolutely love this place.”
His affection for the stage was sparked by tap-dance lessons at age 7. Kirlin laughed at the memory of tap-dancing while simultaneously playing drums at the Indiana State Fair when he was 15. “My mom said, ‘Bobby, whatever happens, you just keep smiling and showing your dimples.’ Well, the set-screw on my drum stand came loose, but I just kept on smiling and dancing as it slid all the way down to the floor.”
The self-proclaimed “farm boy” from Milton, Indiana took careful note of how hard his parents worked, how involved they were in their community, and how adamant they were about leaving the world a better place than they found it. “That’s probably why in my life, if God puts it there in front of me, I’ll jump in and work on it,” Kirlin said.
Thirty days after graduating from Franklin College with a degree in physical education, he was drafted into the Army. A typewriter error resulted in Kirlin working as a physical therapist for a year and a half in San Antonio, Texas, treating burn patients from the Vietnam War. That mix-up likely prevented him from being deployed; “It probably saved my life,” he said.
Kirlin spent 32 years in the men’s apparel industry, with his home in Cincinnati and office in New York City. He said those years of nonstop travel were difficult. However, he loved that that part of his life also included frequent Broadway theater shows.
Later while his sons, Brad and Chuck, studied at Indiana University, Kirlin and his wife, Chris, fell in love with Brown County as tourists. They relocated here 22 years ago, and Kirlin quickly established himself as a community leader and advocate, serving as Nashville Town Council President for a decade, opening two stores downtown, championing the Salt Creek Trail from concept to completion, and serving on a plethora of boards and committees in between.
Kirlin’s said his heart hung heavy after the community felt the economic loss of Ski World closing, and then the Little Nashville Opry burned and closed. When rumors surfaced that the Indiana University Foundation, which ran the Brown County Playhouse, considered closing the theater, Kirlin was CEO of the Brown County Community Foundation and said he “knew that sucker had to stay open.” He helped form a committee to secure its future. The foundation ultimately gifted the Playhouse to the community. “My dreams come true now every single day I see it open,” Kirlin said.
He believes the theater’s future is brighter than ever. The board recently hired its first assistant executive director, Indiana University graduate Hannah Estabrook. Coupling fresh talent with fresh movies and programming on stage, outreach to make the theater available for other Brown County nonprofits’ fundraisers, and the theater’s 70th anniversary this year, Kirlin said, “It’s a really exciting time for us.”
And frankly, it’s an exciting time for him, too. The now 76-year-old grandfather of four has been testing the retirement waters over the past few months with what he’s dubbed “Retirement Friday.” One recent Friday, he cheerfully stayed home and accomplished little other than watching basketball. But the idea of slowing down hasn’t quite stuck yet, between the playhouse, selling real estate, and serving on the boards at Nashville United Methodist Church and the regional nonprofit Thrive Alliance, which provides housing and meals for low-income senior citizens.
Kirlin simply loves Brown County too much to give anything less than his best. He credited the tight-knit community for supporting his family after his and Chris’s son, Chuck, died three years ago from a brain tumor. “We made it through because of these folks,” Kirlin said.
“So, when I die, I want to make sure we’ve left it better than when we came. I just follow my mom’s saying, ‘I am only one, but I am one. What I can do, I will do.’”