John Rice Irwin eulogized during museum service
Key friends and relatives turned out Sunday to pay tribute to Museum of Appalachia founder John Rice Irwin on the grounds of the museum, including former U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Alexander recounted his long friendship with Irwin, which spanned the years Alexander served as governor of Tennessee, U.S. secretary of education and a U.S. senator from Tennessee.
He said he had made antique-hunting trips with Irwin, and as a result, had furnished part of his own home in Maryville as a sort of miniature Museum of Appalachia.
Irwin, a longtime educator and cultural historian – and a former Anderson County superintendent of schools, died Jan. 16 at age 91. He still lived on the family’s property adjacent to the museum in the Bethel community on Andersonville Highway at the time of his passing.
Despite there being around 250,000 Appalachian artifacts at the museum, including 35 pioneer log cabins of the region, Alexander suggested that Irwin himself was the most-interesting feature at the museum that he created in 1969.
And he said the main lesson John Rice Irwin taught him was that “You don’t have to go very far out of your own backyard to find something interesting.”
Irwin, who was eulogized as a true “character,” founded the Museum of Appalachia on his family’s property. It since has become known worldwide, and is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.
Leading the service was longtime museum “porch musician” John Alvis, who was recruited to the position by Irwin himself, Alvis said.
He said Irwin called him on the phone one day and “asked me if I would be interested in coming here and playing music and working here at the museum, and of course, I said ‘yes,’ and I’m still here, and I’m glad of that.”
“Someone told me when I was young that John Rice had built a kingdom here, and that he was the king of it. And I found that to be true. He had built for himself a log kingdom and he was the king of it.
“And the better I got to know him, the better I realized that no one loved this museum in a way that John Rice did. No one could. He loved it with a passion, he loved it with an obsession. And nobody else could begin to understand that.”
Irwin’s grandchildren, Lindsay Gallaher, John Meyer and Will Meyer recounted to the crowd their life growing up in their parents’ home on the grounds, next door to Irwin’s home and the museum, and how the museum was their “back yard.”
And on Saturday mornings, their grandfather would walk up to their home and recruit them to help him with some project for the day on the museum grounds. John Meyer said that Irwin instilled a strong work ethic in them.
Guest musicians and family members performed some of Irwin’s favorite tunes at the Sunday service, and other speakers included longtime Knoxville newspaper columnist Sam Venable.
According to Irwin’s obituary handed out at his funeral and at Sunday’s service, he was born Dec. 11, 1930, in Union County. While he was still a toddler, his family was forced to move from their farm to make way for the flooding of Norris Lake and the construction of Norris Dam. They first settled in Robertsville, but the Manhattan Project forced them to move yet again, this time to the Bethel community.
In 1962, at age 31, Irwin became the youngest school superintendent in Tennessee when he was elected to the post in Anderson County.
“For as long as he could remember, Irwin was captivated by the rich cultural history of East Tennessee and its people,” his obituary read. “As a young boy, he would sit at the feet of his grandmother, Ibbie Jane Rice, and grandfather, Marcellus Moss ‘Sill’ Rice, and listen intently to their stories of the past.
“Sill took notice of his grandson’s fascination and said to him, ‘You ought to keep the old-timey things that belonged to our people end start you a little museum sometime.’ It was this advice that would ultimately inspire Irwin to create the Museum of Appalachia.”