Most people remember Duane Irving driving his imposing three-quarter-ton Dodge diesel pickup around Nicasio, hay bales stacked 20-high in the bed. Heads turned to see his Australian Shepherd Bergie perched on top of the swaying alfalfa. A cowboy, father and founder of Halleck Creek Riding Club, Duane passed away at the Nicasio ranch he donated to his club for the disabled on July 19. He was 75.
“There wasn’t anything you couldn’t do as far as he was concerned,” said Duane’s daughter, Jeanette. “He was the most amazing person that you’ll ever meet.”
Duane was born December 8, 1934 to William and Estelle Irving. William was a rancher, chief of the Nicasio Volunteer Fire Department, and a fixture at Rancho Nicasio. Estelle was a nurse at Lucas Valley Clinic. As a boy, Duane studied at the Nicasio School—now referred to as the Little Red Schoolhouse—where he was an incorrigible prankster. He used to climb onto the rafters and knock wasp nests into the classroom in order to get a free day. But what Duane lacked in classroom patience, he made up for in athletics. A talented football and baseball player, his trademark was an unpadded mitt that barely covered his hand.
Playing third base at San Rafael High School, Duane made an impression on talent scouts. He was drafted into the San Francisco Giants minor league, but turned it down because the Marine Corps offered him $400 more a month. “It was probably a mistake, but the Marine Corps was his whole life,” Jeanette said. Duane joined the military to get paid to play sports, and the Marine Corps failed to excise his distaste for authority. “He never wanted to be an officer, and he never liked officers,” said his son Buck.
Stationed in Okinawa between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Duane would purposely leave the barracks after the 11 p.m. curfew to bait the military police officers. “He’d wait for the MPs to find him, and when they found him he would run,” said his granddaughter Jessica. “He’d run into the first house that had lights on, and sometimes there would be this old Japanese couple sitting there drinking tea. So he’d sit down and drink tea with them until things cooled down.” The next morning the MPs would threaten and browbeat Duane, but that night he would bait them into giving chase again.
Duane became a celebrated boxer in the Marine Corps. Though only a light middleweight, he would habitually take down heavyweight contenders. “He was 155 pounds, and he’d box guys that were over 200 pounds,” Buck said.
Injuries from baseball, boxing and football left their mark. “I can’t tell you how many times he broke his nose,” Buck said. His hands were gnarled and hardened. “Every single one of them bent five different ways,” Jessica said. “He’d go into a store and the cash register guys would look at his hands like, ‘Whoa!’”
Duane was discharged after serving four years, but reenlisted for another two so that he could finish the football season. Back in Nicasio, Duane met a pretty teenager named Nellie Woodard while horseback riding. After three months of dating, they were married in 1959. “It was love at first sight,” Nellie said.
The couple moved to Inverness, where Duane managed Doc Ottinger’s cattle ranch. After the National Park Service purchased the ranch in 1961, Duane took a job managing the Farley Ranch in Nicasio. Later that year the ranch was purchased by the Marin Municipal District, which flooded it to make the Nicasio Reservoir.
With their two young children, Buck and Jeanette, the couple moved to the Irving family ranch. Duane’s ancestor, Henry Halleck, had purchased 30,000 acres for a nickel per acre in an 1850 Mexican land grant, though the land was parceled off over time.
Duane took over for his father, raising cattle, training quarter horses, tending a garden and slaughtering livestock. “We were green before green was popular,” Nellie said. Duane kept wild pigs and raccoons as pets, and once raised two red-tailed hawks he found on the ranch.
One rainy winter day while he was transporting equipment for road maintenance crews, Duane went over a cliff riding a backhoe. The accident twisted his foot backwards, and surgeons inserted a long steel rod in his leg. After Duane’s cremation, his son Peter kept the rod, which he plans to use as the guide stick for a memorial tree. “I’ve been to college and done all that fancy stuff, but he’d be more proud of me for that than anything,” Peter said.
Duane accepted a position training horses at the Morgan Horse Ranch, which was operated by the National Park Service. During an elementary class field trip to the ranch in 1977, Duane noticed a boy in a wheelchair who was not expecting to ride. Unperturbed, Duane hoisted the boy up and onto a horse.
Duane and his friend Joyce created the Halleck Creek Riding Club, which catered to persons with disabilities. He spent a year building the fence around his donated 60 acres, lugging bags of concrete by hand and shaping high-tensile steel lattice. He donated all of the horses and recruited his family to help each Saturday, lifting young children onto horses to give them a taste of cowboy life.
Halleck Creek grew, and won the attention of producer George Lucas, who donated substantial funds for the project. Duane later earned the Federal Employee Humanitarian award, as well as the JC Penny Golden Rule award for his work on the ranch. He did not appreciate the attention, nor the mandatory trip to Washington to receive the humanitarian award.
Nellie and Duane divorced in 1985, but remained close. Nellie still wears a preserved four-leaf clover that Duane gave her several years ago while she was in the hospital. In 1993, Duane went on a fishing trip with his son Butch on the banks of Lake Almano, about 60 miles north of Chico. He looked at the deep blue lake, framed by snowcapped mountains, and declared that he would retire there.
Seven years later he bought a small cabin on the lake, where he retreated from society at large. He did not own a cell phone or have a telephone in the house. “You wouldn’t see Dad for six or eight months, and then he’d show up knocking at your door,” Buck said. “Well, only if your door was locked,” Jessica added. “If it was unlocked he’d just walk right in at ten o’clock at night. You’d sit up and talk with him for a while, and then in the morning he’d be gone.”
Duane was a fan of the impromptu visit. No one knew when or where he would surface. “For the last ten years of his life I called him the Gypsy Cowboy. After he retired, he was a gypsy,” Peter said. But Buck said that if you really needed help, Duane would be there.
The day before he died, Duane drove to Jessica’s house. He told her stories from his time in the Marines late into the night. When she woke up, he was gone. He had driven to the old Nicasio ranch, where he passed away quickly and peacefully. “He died in the place he loved,” Nellie said.
Duane Irving is survived by children Peter Irving, 45, of Petaluma; Jeannette Zanoni, 48, of San Rafael; Buck Irving, 49, of San Rafael; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A memorial celebration for him will take place at 5 p.m. on August 15 at Toby’s Feed Barn, in Point Reyes Station.