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  • A Festschrift for John Irwin
  • Charles Molesworth (bio), Wyatt Prunty (bio), Daniel Anderson (bio), Karen Wilkin (bio), Brad Leithauser (bio), X. J. Kennedy (bio), Ronald Paulson (bio), Jay Rogoff (bio), Charles Martin (bio), Jean McGarry (bio), Richard Burgin (bio), Phil Stephens (bio), and Tristan Davies (bio)


John Irwin was the valedictorian of my high school and college classes, each in a school named after St. Thomas (Aquinas, not More), and both staffed by priests of the Basilian order, CSB as it was abbreviated. These clerics were intellectually quite rigorous. Their point of highest honor was their administration of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at the University of Toronto, where many of them trained. Aside from a few sly digs at the Jesuits, however, they tended to underplay their own educated dedication to philosophy. Introducing young people from Texas to the pleasures of Dun Scotus and other worthies, they made the depth of mediaeval Thomism a standard frame of reference. John Irwin was indisputably one of their prize students.

This is not to attest, one way or the other, to John’s spiritual life, about which I knew almost nothing. On first appearance, he was a shy, modest soul, given to laughing rather uproariously and often. He also had about him an aura of great self-possession, based, among other faculties, on his reputation as one possessed of a photographic memory. A friend of his once told me that John was busy memorizing Boswell’s Life of Johnson; not passages from the book, but the entire book. John never, to my knowledge, laid claim to such a memory, and he certainly never bragged about it. It may even have been a teenager’s [End Page 147] way of describing something that was as inexplicable as it was rare. I often wondered what would that be like, to have a photographic memory: one’s conscious mind would resemble a Xerox machine (then not yet invented); after a short glance at a page of text, one had not an impression, but an archival entry. Everybody at St. Thomas High knew of John’s endowment, yet, like many an open secret, it was seldom discussed and never questioned or tested by his classmates. John carried it gracefully.

John’s early near-mythic power was given corroboration when we shifted to the University of St. Thomas. At UST there were many smart people, and many inspiring teachers, mostly Basilians, who pushed us rather more than they humored us. (John, as I recall, took most of his literature classes with Professor McKee, a white-haired gentleman with a droll wit.) Besides John and myself, the high school sent about a dozen or more of its graduates onto the university. Of this cohort, several went on to be college professors in economics and the sciences, while to my knowledge only John and I became English professors. This, though, represented quite a sizeable proportion of our small graduating class, which numbered about fifty. John was again easily the academic standout, as he would have been even in a very large state university. The story that confirmed his status was occasioned by the GREs. In his senior year John took his tests in both English and French. The news came back from the testing service that John had scored an 800 on his French test. This score was followed up by a letter explaining that John’s score was in fact higher than 800, but this could not be officially recorded, since, though all his answers were correct, the test was not designed by the service with such an eventuality in mind. His classmates from the high school were not surprised to hear this result. Others in our college class just shook their heads and sighed in muffled admiration; the Xerox machine could obviously read French. Another open secret.

John’s path diverged from mine after college; I saw him very rarely over the next five decades but heard reports of how he went on to [End Page 148] Yale for graduate study. Eventually—and often—his books appeared and I saw their titles in reviews and on prize lists. I knew he edited...


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