I received belated word via an Internet search today that Dr. John P. “Jack” Irwin died last October of COVID-19 related pneumonia.
Jack was pastor of the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., in the 1960s – and he was a major influence on my teenage years.
Jack was a wonderful pastor. I remember spending an afternoon with him as he helped me prepare a sermon for youth Sunday. He discussed each point with me, wrote notes in his precise handwriting, and presented me with six green note cards which I held tightly while I delivered my first sermon.
Jack was working on his Ph.D at Syracuse while he was pastor in Morrisville, but he always had time for his parishioners, regardless of age.
I wonder how old I was when I asked him, “How old is God?”
Jack answered, “You have to consider that God has always been and always will be.” How many can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first considered that?
Jack was also willing to offer advice to the teen-aged lovelorn, and at Halloween he was the best teller of ghost stories I had ever heard. I will not forget the All Hallows Eves we spent in the darkened Grange Hall while Jack terrified the Youth Group with stories that made Poe pale by comparison.
Then each Memorial Day Jack would appear with the other vets in his Legionnaire’s cap, smiling and waving and exchanging jokes. What, I would wonder, had he done in the war? Was he even old enough to serve in World War II? Had he been a typist or even a chaplain’s assistant?
No. Years later it was revealed that Jack Irwin had been a teen-age tank gunner in Europe after the Battle of The Bulge. After his retirement as a professor of philosophy at Lock Haven, Pa., University in 1990, he wrote an astonishing memoir, Another River, Another Town, a Teen Age Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat – 1945 (Random House).
Jack’s 90 mm guns were not only responsible for untold numbers of German deaths (he estimates in the hundreds), but his outfit was a liberator of the Nordhausen Concentration camp where he saw human depravity on a scale his parishioners would never imagine.
I wrote to Jack when the book came out, both to admire his writing style and to hint at my amazement of the stories he told. (What shocked me more? That Jack killed hundreds of Germans? Or that when he was among his fellow GI’s, Jack said, “Shit”?)
Jack replied that he had never told anyone those stories, not his wife, not his children. “But I was getting closer to the bone yard and I figured it was time.”
With more than a thousand World War II vets dying each day, I guess it was inevitable that Jack, at 95, would join the march to glory. I’m glad I knew him and celebrate his life today.