It is an honor and privilege to provide some insight into the life of one of Chillicothe's oldest and most respected residents: Mr. John M. Irvin.
Note: The Constitution-Tribune apologizes that this article is not included in a Blog format, as this website does not yet to have that capability. Additionally, not all photographs submitted for this article could be uploaded onto this website to accompany this article. We anticipate that the technical difficulties will be be corrected. By Gary Don Thomas Welcome to a new series entitled Grand River Days. It will be about the people, places, and events that have, and will continue to shape our community. There will likely be no multipart blog entries for this work, so my "chapters" will be considerably longer than a typical post. For the initial chapter, it is an honor and privilege to provide some insight into the life of one of Chillicothe's oldest and most respected residents: Mr. John M. Irvin. I asked John's permission to do this piece a few weeks ago. His professional achievements and community service pursuits are well documented. I used in part, the Constitution-Tribune, the Constitution-Tribune Dateline Vol. II book, and the fine 1981 history published by the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. But, in addition I asked John to provide stories and note people that have influenced his journey to this point. Not long after, I received an envelope with a great deal of information. Included was a neatly typed three page letter; personally signed by John. Well, I reread John's letter just now to ensure that I had covered most of the key things and his signature caught my eye. It truly is a work of art. So, I decided to entitle this chapter. "Sincerely, John Irvin." His late brother Fred was a noted professional artist and illustrator and his father an accomplished pianist. We should not be surprised. Until recently, I only knew of John and a few of the dozens of buildings he was responsible for in our town. But living away, I knew nothing of John and Virgie's giving spirit and admirable community service. Ensuring that our schools and other buildings are built right is important. His company has been highly successful and has created many jobs for our town. But, there is much more to tell. For example, Hope Haven has been a passion of the Irvin's since they donated the company's 304 Clay Street property in 1965. John and Virgie have been vital in ensuring that our developmentally challenged have meaningful work. Such work improves their self-image and self-worth. It has allowed these citizens a way to make Chillicothe a better place. In this article, only a few of the Irvin's contributions to our town are included. I will relate his story in terms of a timeline spanning more than 100 years. Happily, the final chapter is yet to be written.
1907 Clifford Herbert Irvin and Maude Ellen Jarrell were married on 5 Nov 1907 in Chillicothe, Livingston, Missouri. Children were: Jarrell Goodwin Irvin, John Melvin Irvin, Fred M. Irvin. 1909 Jarrell Goodwin Irvin died in infancy on 26 Aug 1909. He was buried in Edgewood Cemetery, Livingston, Missouri. 1911 John Melvin Irvin was born on 11 Jul 1911. He founded the Irvinbilt Company in Chillicothe. John Melvin Irvin and Virgie Elizabeth Kibler were married on 21 Sep 1936 in Chillicothe, Livingston, Missouri. 1914 Fred M. Irvin was born in 1914. He became an accomplished artist and Illustrator. Fred M. Irvin and Betty Smith were married in 1947. Children are: John Maddox Irvin and Jarrell Lee Irvin. 1923 John becomes a member of the First Christian Church of Chillicothe at age twelve. 1929 John graduates from Chillicothe High School 1930 John enrolls at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
During this timeframe (1931-33), John has a story to share (in his own words): Another interesting happening was that I was called by a very nice girl asking if I would go on a date with she and a friend that would be visiting her, and could I get my friend, Sam McDowell to go with us. I said I would be happy to do this. The date was set and we met at her house. When I saw the visiting young lady, I was very surprised. She looked just like the movie star, Betty Grable. I found out that she was Betty Grable's sister. We had dinner, then she wanted to go to a speakeasy. Well, Chillicothe had two or three, so we went and apparently she had a great time. We talked some about her sister in the movie business and how hard the work was at times. It was a fine evening. Editor's Note: John's date was Marjorie L. Grable-Arnold (1908-1980), she was eight years Betty's senior. She came from a prominent Saint Louis family and mother Lillian was an aggressive "stage mom." After Marjorie shunned any thought of a movie career, mother turned to the much younger Elizabeth (stage name Betty) and prepared her for stardom. Betty was all of 13. Lillian's first step was to bleach Betty's hair blonde. It was to stay that way for years to come. For more, see: http://betty-grabble.ememorials.in
1932 John leaves his studies at the University of Missouri to manage a movie theatre for the Dickinson Corporation in Lawrence, Kansas. From retrospect, he regrets not getting a degree. On the other hand, he makes the acquaintance of a beautiful young Chillicothe Business College coed named Virgie Kibler. Virgie's family had recently moved from their Gallatin area farm to Chillicothe for the express purpose of her attending CBC. 1933 John manages a movie theatre for the Dickinson Corporation in Neodesha, Kansas. 1934 John manages a movie theatre for the Dickinson Corporation in Trenton, Missouri. 1935 John begins working for The Prudential Insurance Company to repair and construct new farm buildings in Kansas and Missouri. He enjoys doing this and learns a lot about the construction business. He works about five years in this capacity. 1936 Virgie was raised Baptist, so they are married at the First Baptist Church of Chillicothe on September 21, 1936. But with a four generation legacy of Irvin's at First Christian, she wisely decides it is best to join the First Christian body of believers.
All through their married life, their church has been centric. What follows are but a few examples of their leadership over many decades. John started and taught a Disciples class for twelve years. He served as property chairman, set up a scholarship fund, an endowment fund, and served on a pastoral search committee. Virgie taught grade school age children in Sunday School for fifteen years and served as a deacon. 1939 John works for B. F. Goodrich establishing dealerships throughout Northeastern Oklahoma. But relates that he finally realizes that his true calling was construction. One of John's few regrets is that he hadn't started into his own construction business sooner. 1940 John and Virgie leave Tulsa, Oklahoma and return to Chillicothe. The Irvinbilt Construction Company is founded to contract, design, and build homes. The company would later design and build on a commercial scale. - 1941 After Pearl Harbor, the only construction done by Irvinbilt was directly related to the war effort. During 1941-45, John also built a factory to manufacture wagon boxes, scoop boards, hog feeders, hog houses and baler blocks. These important products were sold all over the United States through Sears and Roebuck. 1947 After the war, Irvinbilt abandons the manufacturing business and focuses on building housing for returning servicemen as they settle into family life. 1948 By 1948, there was a terrific demand for new schools, as few had been built since 1930. There was also a shortage of contractors and Irvinbilt Company expands to meet the need. By the year 1977, Irvinbilt Company had built over sixty-five schools, seventeen under one architect.
1949 Irvinbilt's first major project is the construction of the iconic Ben Bolt theater. The Ben Bolt was a fine example of the Art Moderne Style (razed in 1999). The architect tells John that if he learns to build theaters he will never lack for work. From this point forward, Irvinbilt has at least six jobs in work at all times. 1951 John serves as Kiwanis Club President for 1951-2. 1955 Irvinbilt Company incorporates on February 23, 1955, by John Irvin, Virgie Irvin and Mabel Matson. The company rents 304 Clay Street for offices and a cabinet shop. 1956 Irvinbilt builds the Chillicothe Municipal Utilities Office. 1957 A profit-sharing plan for the benefit of employees of Irvinbilt Company is adopted. For a time, the company does not pursue additional contracts due to the pressing need of dedicated supervision on their existing work. 1958 Irvinbilt renovates the Constitution-Tribune building at 818 Washington and constructs a major addition the Boss Glove factory on Elm. 1959 Irvinbilt constructs the Southwest elementary and high school for the R-1 school district between Ludlow and Dawn. Under the auspices of Chillicothe Industrial Development Corporation (CIDC), the company builds the new Donaldson Manufacturing plant in Gravesville. 1961 In addition to Missouri and Kansas, the Irvinbilt is licensed to conduct business in Iowa. John's father, Clifford dies at 73. He had been associated with the business since 1942. Prior to that, he was a salesman for Adams & Sons Grocer Co., Brownfield and Bird Candy Co., and the National Refining Co. Clifford played the piano at Chillicothe theaters in their early days and played for the first motion pictures shown here. He was also the pianist at the grand opening of the Luella Theatre. 1964 John serves as President of the Salvation Army.
John has another story (in his own words): Things happen unexpectedly. We were in China going through a museum when I looked up to see a face that was familiar. I said hello, you look like you are from the U.S. She said yes, I'm from New York. I said I know I have seen your face before. She said yes, you may have. I am President Truman's daughter. Well, that led to a long conversation in which we found both knew a lot of the same people. Shortly, her husband joined us and we visited for a long time. Come to find out, they were making a round the world trip by private airplane. They were nice people and we enjoyed our visit with them. Editor's Note: I am guessing on the exact year, but 1964 is a possibility. Margaret Truman Daniel hosted a show for CBS called "The International Hour" in 1965 in which she introduced variety acts from around the world. Clifton Daniel went on to be managing editor of the New York Times. Margaret had a very successful career writing murder mysteries set in Washington, D.C. 1967 The Irvinbilt corporate office is moved to 10 Hickory Street to property previously owned by Atkinson-Windle. John and Virgie generously donate the 304 Clay street property to a startup company--- Hope Haven Industries. Hope Haven is a sheltered workshop for persons deemed unemployable in mainstream business due to mental or physical challenges. Hope Haven one of a dozen operating under the auspices of the Missouri Department of Education.
John sent me his resume as a part of the information I used to write this. His lists his occupation as "Investments." The Irvin's return on this investment in human capital cannot be measured by earthly means. 1969 Circa 1969, John begins his involvement with Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri by being named to the Board of Directors. Culver-Stockton is affiliated with the Christian Church. He continues in this commitment to this day. 1971 Irvinbilt becomes an equal opportunity employer and also recommits to providing the best possible working conditions with respect to safety and health. 1974 John serves as Vice Chairman of the Missouri Council on the Arts (1974-1978.) 1975 John's mother Maude dies at 89. John cites his parents as having great influence on his life. His mother was a beautiful lady that assumed much of the day to day parenting of John and brother Fred while his father Clifford traveled. Maude also found time to build a successful real estate business. 1976 An article appears in the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, the headline reads "Homegrown Irvinbilt Firm Provides a Community Boost." In the article, John traces the steps in his company's growth from its inception. It was noted that their policy of promotion from within has been key to retaining their project management personnel. 1977 At the age of sixty-six, John resigns as Chairman of the Board of the Irvinbilt Company in September. He sells the majority of his company stock to the employees.
But in February of that year , John has another story for us (in his own words): Another incident that may be of some interest is this. Before he became president of the U.S., Ronald Reagan was invited to give a speech at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. Governor Reagan wanted to fly from St. Louis to Quincy, Illinois and be picked up for a short ride to the college. Irvinbilt had a twin-engine airplane and since I was on the Board of Directors of culver-Stockton , we offered the plane, along with two pilots to fly Gov. Reagan from St. Louis to Quincy, Illinois. The same day we were pick up Gov. Reagan, I was to be at a meeting in Springfield, Mo. later in the day. So we decided that Virgie would fly to St. Louis on the company plane and I would drive to Lambert field to meet Gov. Reagan's flight and then drive him to the private field where the company plane would be waiting for the short hop to Quincy. Our visit to the private airfield was most enjoyable. We talked about his movies, the government in California, and his growing up years in Illinois. Virgie visited with him all the way to Quincy, and then by car to Canton.
1978 The Atkinson-Windle Co. donates a building on Forest Drive to the Grand River Historical Society. Irvinbilt renovates it inside and out to create this organization's first museum. The new museum's exhibits are moved from the Livingston County library. - 1984 John and Virgie begin their long association and support for the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock, Mo. Support for Arrow Rock, and arts in general, continues to this day.
1987 John is recognized by the Chillicothe Chamber of Commerce for his distinguished service to our community. 1988 John has another story (in his own words): One evening at home were watching television and President Ford was a guest. He told stories of his life, one of which sure got my attention. He had a date with a girl and was taking her home on a streetcar. When it got to his stop, he got off and left the young lady to go home by herself. His father found out that he had not taken her home and made him go to her home and apologize. I wrote to President Ford and told him of a similar experience and received a very nice letter from him. He thought my experience was the best. The letter hangs on my wall in my office. - 1997 John will be instrumental in establishing a Foundation for the Rotary Club. A few months ago, some proceeds were used for a marker honoring Dr. and Mrs. A. J. Simpson for their immense gift to our town in 1926. Our John is at the Right..... 1998 John is presented the Difference Maker's Award by the City of Chillicothe for his hard work and support of the "Permanent Street Program Ballot Measure." 2002 John writes "Czech Escape", a biography about Dr. and Mrs. Mandler, friends and longtime residents of Chillicothe. It describes their harrowing experiences surviving the Holocaust. - 2004 John writes a personal tribute to his boyhood friend and mentor. Entitled "Ed Lee…An Uncommon Man", John tells of this extraordinary man that operated a veterinary clinic near his home in Chillicothe. Despite a third grade education, this highly intelligent man taught John much about basic business practices, which have clearly served him well throughout his career. Of equal importance, Ed taught John some life lessons, which are manifest by how he treats others. John mentioned that third book on his family is in work.... 2007 John receives one of the first Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Chillicothe Chamber of Commerce. John's brother Fred dies at age 93. He was raised and educated in Chillicothe. He served in the U S Army during WWII. On September 13, 1947 he married Betty Elizabeth Smith. They had two sons, John Maddox and Jarrell Lee. He was a self-employed illustrator for publishing and advertising companies. He had worked for Hanna Barbara Company and Ruby Spears Company in CA. He was a talented artist with many of his paintings and drawings on display at the Grand River Historical Society museum in Chillicothe. One of them was as a theme for the mural created by Kelly Poling at 708 Locust Street . This scene portrays a pre-World War I Chillicothe setting. The Milwaukee Depot (demolished in 1977) serves as the backdrop for period vehicles and a drawn streetcar used to transport patrons to the station. Lifetime Service Award From Hope Haven, Inc. 2011 Hope Haven builds a new Recycling Center at 12 Herriman Street and names it after John and Virgie. - 2012 Like Old Man River, John Keeps A' Rollin Along! John said that he would like to be (1) remembered for helping those that needed help and (2) as someone who did something for Chillicothe. John is guilty on both counts! Seriously, he lost his best friend two years ago. Of course, she is sorely missed by John and all that knew her. They had great times together. They traveled the world, met many interesting people, and have many, many friends. They supported each other in the great and in the small. As a believer, John knows that one day they will be back together; for all time. Seventy-four years of marriage is impressive for humankind; but it doesn't begin to register on His Eternal Timeline. "But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." 2 Peter 3:8 (KJV). GT