Tribute to John Irwin

Posted: June 1, 2023 at 7:00 am

John IrwinIn the tradition of Elmhurst newsletters of sharing stories about our members and local businesses, we thought it fitting around the time of Board elections to share the story of John Irwin, our longest serving Board member.

Many in our Elmhurst Community know John. He was elected to the Board of Directors in 1976 and was re-elected by our members every three years ever since. As of 2022, John has served on the Elmhurst Board for 46 years. Those of you who frequented the Brookdale Golf Course over the years probably ran into John or golfed with him, as he is a life-long avid golfer.

As with each of us, John has a longer and richer story than the short biography you see on your Board election ballot or our website. We were privileged to learn some of that story from John and his daughter, Sheryl, and to share it here with all of you.

Originally from Lincoln, IL, John’s grandparents moved to Tacoma from Illinois in 1921-1922. They drove a Ford Model T car all the way and stopped every two hours to clean mud out of the tires. Imagine the condition of the roads at that point in America’s history, the geography from Illinois to Washington, and the sturdiness of the Model T! Not even 10 years old, John’s father (John D. Irwin) had the task of cleaning the mud out of the wheels and remembered the journey (not fondly) as a “really long trip”. On their journey, they were quarantined for 6 weeks at Yellowstone having contracted chicken pox.

John’s grandfather founded Washington Electric on his arrival in Tacoma. Washington Electric line crews pulled high tension power lines in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho from the power supply at Bonneville Power. They pulled lines into cities and from cities into rural communities.

John’s parents attended Lincoln High School. His mother (Iris) was a dance instructor at a little community center near 56th and South Tacoma Way. His parents graduated in 1932 and were married in 1935. When they were engaged, there was a full-page article in the newspaper about the local dance instructor getting married.

After graduating in 1932, John’s father went back to Illinois and pulled power into the town they were from (Lincoln, IL).  After returning from Illinois, he tried his hand at fishing in Alaska for 6-8 months. Deciding that wasn’t for him, he returned to the Pacific Northwest and tried lumberjacking. Soon his own father (John’s grandfather) told him it was past time to “settle down”, which is when he joined Washington Electric.

Eventually John’s father purchased Washington Electric from his grandfather. John’s father recalled hosting Christmas parties for the line crews and their families pulling line through the Blue Mountains in Oregon. He would give the Christmas bonus checks to their wives to keep them sober for the hard and dangerous work ahead.

As his family grew, John’s father eventually purchased 80 acres of land near the Brookdale Golf Course. He built a barn and moved his family there from Tacoma around 1951. They lived in the barn while their house was built. John’s father raised 80 head of cattle and cutting horses. He competed for a while with these horses.

John attended and graduated from Franklin Pierce High School. Unlike his father, he had no interest in horses. He tried bull riding (until he was stepped on by a bull) and calf roping and didn’t like these activities either. As he wandered around during one of his dad’s cutting horse competitions, he started to watch the rodeo clowns. This caught his fancy, and he started talking with the clowns. He joined their ranks and performed at rodeos for 8-10 years. This was during the years when these individuals were not protected in the rodeo – it was just them and the bull and their ability to outsmart, distract and outrun the bull. His daughter remembers his funny outfits, and her favorite was his pink tutu and leotard. He used to dress up in his costumes for his children to make them laugh. As a rodeo clown he was also in charge of pyrotechnics, which in those days was raw dynamite.

His daughter remembers John had a stockpile of dynamite after he left the rodeo (he left this work due to its danger and he now was married with two small children). John loved blowing up something every 4th of July, whether it was a fence post or gate or other object. His mother used to “get so mad” at him for his 4th of July “fireworks”.

John met the love of his life, his wife Nancy, while working at the fish hatchery in Salkum near Mossy Rock. He worked as an electrician at the hatchery for a while. Nancy was a waitress at a restaurant in Salkum. While it was love at first sight for John, Nancy was not impressed or interested. After eating at the restaurant 2-3 times each day for several weeks, he finally convinced her to go on a date with him. They were married soon afterwards and spent 35 years together before she passed away at age 53.

Jown Irwin Jr. stands with his Distinguished Service Award surrounded by his Washington cooperative friendsAfter returning to Tacoma, John spent most of his career as a journeyman electrician working for Washington Electric. He eventually started bidding contracts for his father. The shop was on South Tacoma Way where the bus barn is now. His family would join him a couple of times each week for lunch. John retired from this work in 1999.

In the middle of starting a family, entertaining crowds at the rodeo and bringing electricity to communities across the Pacific Northwest, John served in the Coast Guard Reserves during the Vietnam War from 1963-1969.

John is a lifetime avid golfer. At age 15, he worked all summer as a caddie at Brookdale Golf Course to raise money for his first set of golf clubs. He also used to fly fish and had a beautiful set of handmade bamboo fishing rods. He was very active in the Boy Scouts as his son was growing up. As Scout Master, he took the Boy Scouts on hikes and camping trips. John travelled for a time and fondly remembers cruises to Australia and St. Martin Island.

Given his background in the electric power industry, John was recommended to serve on the Elmhurst Board in 1976 and has served now for 46 years. During this time, John has served other electric cooperatives as well.

He joined the Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association (WRECA) board in 2005 and was appointed Treasurer, Secretary, Vice President, then President. He is currently the Vice President of the WRECA Board and has served on that board now for 17 years.

WRECA, through a Resolution of the Membership in 2022, honored John for his service. Their citation read “John continues to serve in the most honorable manner” and he consistently demonstrates the “true cooperative spirit in all of his dealings with the WRECA members, associates and employees”. Some years ago, John initiated an annual golf tournament to raise funds to advance the interests of electric cooperatives in Washington State, and the golf tournament was renamed in his honor as the “John Irwin Cooperative Leadership Golf Tournament”.

John was also honored by the Northwest Public Power Association (NWPPA). From NWPPA, he received the William “Bill” McCorie Distinguished Service Award in 2017. This award honors individuals who have served the interest of public power and NWPPA in an outstanding manner.

John is very proud of his daughter, Sheryl Irwin-Ice, minister of Tacoma First Nazarene Church where he attends services.  His son, John Irwin, is a lighting salesman at Mid-West Wholesale Lighting and is “very smart”. He also delights in the successes of his teenage granddaughter, Sofia.

John tells us that he lives taking “one day at a time” and “enjoying myself”. He recently attended his 62nd year Franklin Pierce High School class reunion and all attendees were 80 years or older!

Those of you who have followed our stories about the Elmhurst community might remember the story of Jim Smith, the wood carver who was also a successful artist, musician, social worker, and activist. Jim was John’s wood carving instructor for a time and John remembers him as a very kind teacher. Elmhurst members truly are a community with rich history and connections.