Irwin DeVries passed away last week. He will be missed so much, by so many of us.
His career in education spanned five decades: he was at the Open Learning Agency in the early eighties, and over the years he made immense contributions to the Justice Institute of BC, TRU Open Learning (retiring as our Associate Vice-President), Royal Roads University, and elsewhere. But his influence and impact goes far beyond the places he worked. He was a true leader in the educational community, a fantastic collaborator, and a thoughtful and passionate practitioner. His values and his work live on with the many people he mentored, guided, encouraged and assisted. “Open Learning” was not just a place to Irwin, nor was it simply his profession. If you were lucky enough to know Irwin, you know that he approached open learning as a calling, a set of noble principles, and these were things he lived up to in all respects of his life.
As impressive as Irwin was as an educator, thinker, and leader it was as a person where he was truly exceptional. Kind, thoughtful, caring and unbelievably generous. He was not afraid to make tough decisions or do things that made some people unhappy. But whatever he was doing, the values of staying human and the mission of the open educator were always paramount. And of course, you can’t discuss Irwin without remembering his exceptional sense of humour, utter lack of pretence and ego, and immense talent as a musician.
He was the best friend anyone could have. And I will be forever grateful to him. This is where I get sloppy. Ever since it was clear his illness was serious, and especially since he passed, I’ve been wading through photos, videos, and countless recordings of jam sessions. Sharing grief with friends, knowing that many others feel the same way. I was expecting this, but am still not settled with the loss. So before I throw some more or less random memories down, I want to share a memorial.
I’m thankful to Brenna for thinking to establish a scholarship in Irwin’s name. This scholarship will be dedicated to TRU’s Open Learning students. Irwin was deeply committed to the Open Learning mandate, and the mission of serving students who might otherwise be shut out from higher education. (We’ve recently started collecting some of these stories on this site.) If we reach our goal of $25,000, the Irwin DeVries Scholarship Fund for Open Learning Students will be endowed in perpetuity. If we fall short, all funds will be dispersed to Open Learning students.
In case you are wondering, we discussed this scholarship fund with Irwin last year, and he was moved by the idea. He did not want us making a fuss about his illness. We were hoping to do some kind of online fundraising teach-in with his participation, but this all moved faster than we expected. We’ve also gotten the go-ahead from his family.
We understand there are many worthy causes and needs, but if you wish to contribute to this memorial (tax deductible in Canada), there is a form at: https://www.tru.ca/irwin
I guess that is the important stuff, but I also need to share a few more personal memories. I’ve seen a number of people express things since the news of his passing, and a lot of the same themes come up. Gratitude for his support and mentorship is a common one: “he believed in me, and it meant so much”.
Irwin’s seemingly dazed, distracted and absent-minded manner also comes up a lot. Many of my favourite Irwin stories start from this. Though once you knew him it was clear he was keen and perceptive and didn’t miss a trick. His mind was always going. A friend observed to me “I think he was just infinitely curious about the world and sometimes its wonders overwhelmed him.”
So as much as I want to celebrate the leader, the educator and sage I also treasure the true friend, the beer and travel buddy, the bandmate and master of jams, and the legendary goofball. His sense of humour was eclectic as the rest of him: sometimes dry as a bone and drawing on real erudition, other times pure uncut silliness. He laid down some of the most brutal puns ever inflicted on humanity, and I usually reacted with visceral disgust. He’d act as if he was sorry, but we knew he’d pun again.
I would not have come to TRU if it wasn’t for Irwin, though I didn’t know him well when I applied for the job in 2012. I was not at all sure I wanted to leave a good job at UBC, and a home in East Van that our family loved. Irwin was on the hiring committee, and I immediately felt a rapport. The thought of working alongside him as another Director at Open Learning seemed intriguing.
I hope it’s safe to say now that Irwin went outside the lines with the protocols and rules of a university search with me. He gave me a lift back to the hotel after the interviews and told me flat out he would love it if we could work together. He also said in the coming days I could ask him anything I needed in order to make my decision, that he would answer with total honesty, and that it would stay completely between us. I took him up on that, he lived up to his word, and it made all the difference.
After I arrived at TRU, I found myself placed in all sorts of situations that were new to me. In the subsequent weeks, months… hell, years I was barging into his office any time I saw his door open to ask his take on whatever new and often trivial development was baffling or appalling me. His response was always a sly smile, saying “hey man”, and nodding at the door, which meant I should shut it and sit down. I knew then and now how lucky I was that he gave me so much time. And that what I understand now as “mentorship”, from a highly experienced and skilled leader, felt at the time like talking shit and cracking jokes.
Shortly after I started at TRU, the Open Education Conference had its 2012 event in Vancouver. I was a co-organizer with Scott Leslie, who had the brilliant idea to host the conference dinner on a boat, along with a jam session of some the musicians in attendance. It was so much fun to drum along with talented musicians, and it was the first time I played with Irwin… You can see us in this clip. It’s a song most of us are playing for the first time, and of course Irwin plays guitar beautifully and with restraint in the background. (A lot of memories with dear friends loaded up in here.)
Irwin told me after that he wanted to play music with me in Kamloops, and we set out to find a band. And a few fits and starts became Breaking Band. We were so lucky to have Dave and Ronda Olds give us the regular use of The Bassment, and with them and Matt Dyck we played most Tuesday nights for five years, along with a handful of house parties and assorted odd gigs.
A thing I have always appreciated is how when we get together everybody seems to get a sense of the collective mood and we jam accordingly. Some nights we focus on trying to get a tricky cover to sound right. Some nights we compose an original song. Some nights we jam freeform and maybe stumble on something we love. Some nights we randomly pick songs we know and try a few we don’t know. Some nights we only play a few songs and tell stories and laugh. Now that I think of it, we laugh no matter what.
I will forever love all my Breaking Band-mates, and Irwin was an incredible part of it all. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular and underground music, from decades past and the present day. It was hard to stump him… Most times, all you had to do was name a song title and he would play it pretty well. Give him time to listen and run it through a couple of times, and he could nail anything. He was also a gearhead and audiophile… He could get lost in his many effects pedals, and we made fun of how often he spilled his beer, but he was also so generous as a musician you had to love him. Looking back, I still cannot believe what we had as a social hobby.
And it wasn’t just there that his skills as a musician shone. Irwin was always up for wherever and however music was being made: full gear rock outs in rented studios, living room acoustic singalongs, playing with synthesizers just about anywhere. We might play an old fave hit (or cheeseball tune that made us laugh), play long extended psychedelic noodles, or work together to write a song. He had solid production skills and loved making records with others, or in his home studio. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to know a few people who are highly skilled musicians, yet able to play with anyone, even complete beginners, and the result is always huge fun. And Irwin is right up there. I have hundreds of hours of poorly labeled and disorganized raw recordings of jams with him, usually recorded off a phone. A lot of it probably not impressive from the listener perspective, it was the participation that was the thing. What strikes me is how often when a song ends, the next sound is usually one of laughter. These samples are probably not the best examples, but they came up quickly when I went looking, and the memories made me smile, so I will go with them.
“You May Be Right” – Irwin and I duet Billy Joel in Michelle and Kevin’s living room. What does it say we all know the words? Irwin starts us off by saying “so, you wanna just play some notes and see what comes?”, which was a common song starter.
“Salamander Scanner” – my living room along with Grant and Harry, absurdist lyrics made up on the fly by Irwin after some wordplay, as he loved to do. (OK, I admit it, I love this stupid track so much because it is the closest we ever got to sounding like a Guided by Voices song.)
Alan Levine wrote a wonderful reflection that captures how music framed Irwin’s qualities as a friend, sharing some fun clips along with some fantastic photos. It was so great to have Alan in town.
Irwin and I knew how lucky we were to have some of the work trips that TRU brought us… The ones prompted by the OERu and its diverse international alliance of open, online and distance institutions were especially memorable. I still cannot believe I got to see South Africa with Irwin and my then-new friend Rajiv, and we may have experienced Peak Irwin when we somehow lost him on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned) — remember what I was saying about his dazed and distracted manner? Rajiv and I were feeling very concerned as the last boat of the day pulled off the island with Irwin still very much missing. He arrived later on the staff boat, having received some scolding from them, as apparently he was the most confused tourist they had ever had. I still don’t know how we lost him. Just one of many unforgettable adventures on that trip.
There are too many other episodes and memories on the road with Irwin to recount. But as I sit here I remember when we got Michelle to join us in a weird word game based on the 5 R’s in Edinburgh. Or hotel room jams in Utah, where Irwin almost got our instrument rental kiboshed after an hour of negotiation because he correctly thought the music store owner was charging too much money for mediocre instruments. As easygoing as he was, he had a perverse side and could be very stubborn if he sensed unfairness. I still gave him hell at the time for almost blowing a painfully constructed deal where we had no alternatives for gear. Later, of course, we laughed about it.
I shot these videos when we were at the National Music Centre in Calgary. We had a long layover, so D’Arcy Norman took us out for breakfast and we hit the NMC. We found the interactive activities good reason for silliness.
Irwin once got me out of bed in Hobart, Australia at 4:00 AM after a lot of knocking on my hotel door and eventually getting the front desk to call me. He informed me that my house back on Paul Lake had just burned down, that my family was safe but everything I owned was gone. I was set to begin the long trip back to Canada in a few hours. We went for a walk on the empty streets, then stopped in an all-night coffee shop as I tried to process what was happening. As always he was there for me: caring, wise, and ready to marvel at the crazy dark absurdity of it all. A few hours earlier, we had sat up late drinking whisky and sharing gratitude for our good fortune in life, and of being in Australia together with inspiring people. As the sun came up in the coffee shop that morning, I mostly remember us sitting at the table making each other laugh at how weird life can be.
My family broke up around the same time, and my son left town to be with his mom. It was the low point of my life. I was lonely, now middle-aged, living in a short-term furnished basement, and had no social life in Kamloops outside of work. The work itself was frustrating and seemed pointless. I looked at my life, had no idea what I thought I was doing, and felt like a total wreck. Irwin’s own living situation was unconventional. His home was hours away in the lower mainland, and he commuted back most weekends. So he too spent his workweeks in a small rental… Suffice to say that during this tough period we saw a lot of each other: band practice on Tuesdays, we’d often make one another dinner, and/or meet at the Fox ‘N Hound for a couple pints after work. I was a miserable mess, making a mockery of self-care, but Irwin could not have been a better friend, or better company. We had a lot of fun, he listened to my endless moaning and self-absorbed ranting, and he would talk straight to me when I was in danger of sinking or inflicting more damage on myself. It’s more fun to think of the high points, but I’m most grateful to Irwin for being there when it was very low.
Maybe my most treasured conversations were after band practice. He and I would both be blissed out from rocking out, but also too amped to sleep. So we’d usually sit in his living room for a nightcap, listen to music, and have long meandering chats that frequently got philosophical. Irwin knew pain and struggle. He’d talk about his lifetime of kidney disease, the times spent in dialysis, the transplants (including one from his wife Jean), and the ongoing fragility he felt about his health. Between the post-jam vibes and the life lessons, a common theme from him was how precious and amazing life was. One reason why he had such contempt for people who were mean, or petty, or who were wrapped up in their ego or power trips was that they failed to appreciate just how amazing it was to be alive. Here we were, paid to work in a field dedicated to learning! We got to play music, to laugh, to meet and spend time with amazing people that we admired and enjoyed. Most Tuesday nights, he’d have me grinning and shaking my head in disbelief with him, amazed at how lucky we were to be alive amidst so many wonderful people and things.
When Irwin told his friends last year that he had cancer, as usual he was calm and reassuring. He said it had been caught early, and the prognosis was good. I worried how his constitution would respond to chemo, and sure enough it ended up being too much for him. He let us know he had stopped treatment, that he wanted to use his remaining time with family and friends. Last month, he and Rajiv came to Kamloops for a long weekend. He was thin, but otherwise said he felt great and he was the same person he’d always been. We jammed music in my living room. Connected with old friends. Had beer with colleagues at the Fox. We talked and gossiped about work. He indulged my stupid complaints and grievances. Rajiv, my son Harry, Irwin and I made a backroad trip to the Falkland Pub in the terrain surrounding Kamloops that he always enjoyed.
He seemed so good, I thought we would have more visits, and we made plans for future jams and friend connections. I got a little sloppy and sentimental at times. I even told him that I didn’t really hate his puns that much. Later he took advantage of that by unleashing some real howlers. As we were saying goodbye in front of my house, I told him as clearly and directly as I could what he meant to me. And I’ll always treasure what he said back. He was the epitome of grace and kindness. Of course I will miss him. I’m sitting here now at our usual table in the Fox, where I have been writing this over the past couple evenings, with tears in my eyes. But I am so, so glad to have known him, learned from him, and that he was my friend.
— “Parsley in Her Teeth” – co-written (and with horn) by David Olds
Thank you Tom Woodward for some of these photos, including the cover image.