- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
It was a snide remark often aimed at John Rice Irwin: “Ya’know ’em ‘antiques’ at the Museum of Appalachia? They used to be called ‘tools.’”
That they were: Hand tools, blacksmith tools, sawmill tools, farm tools, and a jillion other gadgets, gizmos, contraptions and whatchamacallits that once were part of everyday life in this region.
Some date back centuries, long before North America attracted arrivals from afar. Some are “new” enough to have been mail-ordered from a Sears, Roebuck catalog and RFD’ed into the boondocks.
Their origin and age were important to JR — and that’s how I addressed him throughout our 40-year friendship; well, that and a few acidic handles, like “His Enema, uh, I mean His Eminence,” depending on our respective moods at the moment.
But what he cared most about were the people behind those tools. He wanted to hear their stories and chronicle their lives for future generations. That’s what historians and educators do.
JR, who died Jan. 16 at age 91, was both. And he did an incredible job.
In the process, he beamed a spotlight on this region and its people. He made us proud of who we are and whence we came.
Outside his family, two people knew JR the best: Kathy Brown, a real estate developer, homebuilder and former mayor of Clinton; and Andrea Fritts, his secretary and indispensable assistant, file clerk, scheduler, go-fer, sounding board and cat-herder for 35 years.
“John Rice had genuine affection for the people of this area, especially the older folks,” said Kathy, who partnered with Irwin on several land purchases through the years.
“I don’t know how many times we’d go look at a farm that was for sale. It was hard to keep him focused because he was always wandering off and visiting with somebody.”
JR was a copious note-scribbler. Plus, his brain was hardwired to remember names, places, dates, details ad infinitum. He could recall so much “stuff,” it was difficult to rein him in. Trust one who often phoned with a question that needed a quick, simple answer.
Fat chance of that.
JR would start at “A,” maybe get to “B,” then invariably transition to “G” or “L” or “P,” which reminded him of “E” or “H,” blah-blah-blah, and there went 20 minutes.
Andrea laughed aloud when I mentioned this quirk.
“So many times, we’d be setting up a display and he’d pick something up. Anything, it didn’t matter. He’d start talking about when it was made or where he got it or what it was used for. It’s a wonder we ever got any exhibits finished.”
Spend a day at the Museum of Appalachia, our own mini-Smithsonian, and you’ll see they most certainly did.
Sam Venable’s column appears every week. Contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: One more reason we're glad to be 'from around here' | Sam Venable