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John Rice Irwin, guardian of Appalachia’s past, dies at 91


As a child, he was fascinated by the stories his grandfather told about his own grandfather George Rice, an arms manufacturer, and even about George’s father, James, a corn miller. He frequently received relics from his ancestors as gifts, prompting his grandfather to tell him, “You should keep those old things that belonged to our people and make a little museum for yourself someday.

Shortly after graduating from high school, John joined the United States Army. He was stationed in Germany during the Korean War and was honorably discharged after two years. He graduated from Lincoln Memorial University in East Tennessee in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in history and earned a master’s degree in international law from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1958.

Mr. Irwin initially pursued an eclectic career, serving at a local school as principal, canteen manager and basketball coach while operating a fruit market and selling real estate at around the same era. His hobby was browsing local estate sales and auctions, where he found himself troubled by how a family’s sacred heritage could be sold as scrap.

He had a revelation when he visited his paternal grandparent’s house as plans were being made to demolish it. Her grandmother’s objects that had each held a special place in her home and expressed something of her character and family history were now jumbled together. Tears welled up in Mr. Irwin’s eyes when he discovered among the debris Granny Irwin’s pewter spice grater, in which she had stored nutmeg seeds to shave on her pies.

The idea began to form in his mind that something bigger was hiding behind his sentimentality – a whole culture and heritage that could be thrown away.

Mr. Irwin went on to win a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1989, which helped fund the museum, and won national and international press acclaim. But his family remained the main driving force behind the museum. His daughter, Elaine Meyer, is the current president; his grandson Will works as a marketing manager; and his sister, Lindsey Gallaher, is the director of development.

Besides them, Mr. Irwin is survived by his brother, David; another grandson; and five great-grandchildren.