John Rice Irwin, 91, cultural historian and founder of the Museum of Appalachia, passed away on Sunday, January 16, 2022, in Clinton, Tennessee.
Born in Union County, John’s family was uprooted twice – once to make way for Norris Lake and again to make way for Oak Ridge. He served in the U. S. Army and used the G.I. Bill to obtain a bachelor’s degree in history from Lincoln Memorial University. He later earned a master’s degree in international law from the University of Tennessee.
Mr. Irwin taught for several years in both public schools and colleges, and in 1962, he became the youngest superintendent of schools in the state when he was elected to the position in Anderson County at the age of 31.
All the while, he spent his free time traveling throughout the hills and hollers of Southern Appalachia collecting “old-timey things,” and more importantly, the stories behind them. He bought a historic cabin and placed it on his family property in Norris.
Over time the Museum of Appalachia grew. It hosted the Tennessee Homecoming in 1986 and writer Alex Haley bought a farm across the street. The Haley property was later purchased by the Children’s Defense Fund and is used for training and as a retreat.
In 1989, Irwin won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, which he used to build the Museum’s Hall of Fame. Irwin operated the Museum until it was converted to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2003. He served in an advisory role for the next decade, during which the Museum achieved recognition as a Smithsonian Affiliate.
A graveside service will be held at Norris Memorial Gardens at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, January 20. The procession will leave from Holley Gamble Funeral Home in Clinton at 3 p.m. A celebration of the life of John Rice Irwin will be held at the Museum of Appalachia on Sunday, April 24, 2022, at 2 p.m. Additional info here.