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John Irvin, ambassador for Ky. folk art, dies

John Irvin, a retired banker, arts promoter and practical joker — a people person, according to his friends — died Sunday at his home in Lexington after a brief illness. He was 85.

Mr. Irvin handled the displays at Central Bank & Trust Co.'s art gallery. And it was Mr. Irvin who persuaded University of Kentucky officials to include folk art displays in the school's hospital now under construction.

Mr. Irvin, a founding member and former chairman of the board of the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University, took busloads to people to the A Day in the Country folk art show at the center when it was in Elliott County.

Several times he dressed up like an artichoke to entertain guests at the Lexington Council of the Arts' annual Arts, Folks & Artichokes event.

"I think he's irreplaceable in terms of being a promoter of local artists and championing Kentucky as a creative place," LexArts president and chief executive officer Jim Clark said.

"He was a great ambassador for Kentucky folk art. He talked about folk art with everyone he met, especially people from out of state," said Matt Collinsworth, director of the folk art center.

"John was the type of fellow ... he knew a little something about everything," said Luther Deaton, president and chief executive officer of Central Bank, where Mr. Irvin had been a senior vice president. "I called him a walking computer."

Aside from being "just a riot" in his artichoke suit and "quite the good old boy in the best sense of the word," Mr. Irvin was a most sophisticated and cultured man who knew a lot about many kinds of art, said Dee Fizdale, former executive director of the Lexington Council of the Arts.

Mr. Irvin, a Nicholas County native, attended Transylvania College and graduated from UK after a stint in the Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II. (He wrote a book, The History of the 389th Infantry Regiment in World War II.)

He was involved in civic affairs in Central and Eastern Kentucky for decades.

After the war, he was publicity director for the old Joyland Park in Lexington, booking many famous bands. He also served on the Mountain Laurel Festival board and was involved in Fourth of July celebrations in Lexington.

One of his favorite practical jokes was to pull a phone out of his pocket and tell whoever was nearby, "It's for you." He once caused a traffic jam in front of Flocoe Drugs in Pineville, owned by a friend, artist Mason Combs, by twirling a baton in the middle of the street. And Mr. Irvin, on one occasion, got himself and several friends into a crowded popular restaurant in another state by indicating to the maitre d' that he was a U.S. senator.

Although the walls and tabletops of his Lexington home were filled with art, the creators of that art held just as much of his interest as their work.

"He loved going to visit the artists, spending time with them and seeing what they were doing, more so than just purchasing and having their art in his house," Collinsworth said.

Mr. Irvin is survived by two sons, John G. Irvin Jr. and Andrew Halliday Irvin; four grandchildren; and a stepsister.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Main Street. Visitation will be 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

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