As a boy, he was captivated by stories his grandfather told about his own grandfather George Rice, a gunsmith, and even George’s father, James, a grain miller. He was often given relics from his ancestors as gifts, prompting his grandfather to tell him, “You should keep these old-fashioned things that belonged to our people and start a small museum for you someday.”
Shortly after graduating from high school, John enlisted in 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 eastern Tennessee in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in international law from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1958.
Mr. Irwin initially pursued an eclectic career, working at a local school as a principal, lunchroom manager and basketball coach, while simultaneously operating a fruit market and selling real estate. His hobby was scouring local sales and real estate auctions, where he was concerned about how a family’s sacred patrimony could be sold for scrap.
He had a revelation when he visited his paternal grandparents’ house while plans were being made to tear it down. Items from his grandmother, each of which had a special place in her home and expressed something of her character and family history, were now piled up in a heap. Tears welled up in Mr. Irwin’s eyes when he discovered Grandma Irwin’s cans of spice grater among the rubble, in which she’d kept nutmeg seeds to shave on her pies.
The idea began to form in his mind that there was something greater behind his sentimentality—an entire culture and heritage that might just be thrown away.
mr. Irwin would go on to win a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1989, which helped him fund the museum, and garnered praise in the national and international press. But his family remained the main motivation of 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 development director.
In addition to them, Mr. Irwin is survived by his brother, David; another grandson; and five great-grandchildren.