He graduated from high school at 93. He published his first book at 95. He’s the oldest member of Ironworkers Local 97. And on Monday, Nelson’s Joe (Red) Irving turns 100.
“Not many people make it to 100,” he chuckled in a recent interview. “A lot of people don’t make it to 90.”
Not many people can boast involvement in as many major construction projects either — from the Lions Gate Bridge to the Kootenay Canal — nor an elephant’s memory that stretches back to the start of the First World War.
His trade took him all over BC, Alberta, the Yukon, and the US, and saw him build bridges, tunnels, dams, head frames, and power spans, usually as a foreman.
“Ironwork is a funny thing for a person to follow,” he says. “Some guys follow it just to get a good cheque on a Friday night. I followed it because I wanted to be the best ironworker going. I had a good life in ironwork. I didn’t have to look for jobs. The jobs came to me.”
Irving entered the world on October 10, 1911 at Thrums — the first baby born there.
“If a person can pick a place to be born, this was a real nice choice,” he wrote in his autobiography.
He was the sixth of nine children of Edward and Mary Irving, who met at a railway station in Spokane.
His father, interested in prospecting and mining, was en route to Rossland. His mother, an Omaha native travelling in the west, suddenly decided she was going to Rossland too. The couple married there in 1898 and later moved to Thrums, then Glade, where Joe’s father built a log house that cost $79, including doors, windows, floor, and nails.
One of Joe’s earliest memories was living there when World War I began.
“A whole bunch of boys who were going away in the army all came to our place the night before,” he says. “We had a big sing song. I was only about 3½ or four years old, but I remember that. Some of them never came back.”
His father, a carpenter, had trouble finding work, so the family moved to Trail, where a new zinc plant was being built. They bought property in East Trail in the summer of 1917 and arrived just as labour icon Ginger Goodwin was leading smelter workers in an unsuccessful three-month strike.
Irving was in the first class at the new school in East Trail, later named for one of his teachers, Laura J. Morrish. He was in Grade 2 when the armistice was signed.
“It was a cold November day. They lined all us kids up outside the school and we walked across the old bridge,” he says.
Close to where the Cominco Arena is now, speeches were given and a band played.
“Us kids were glad when it was over,” he recalls.
He later went to school in Blueberry, where his sister taught — they needed extra students to keep the school open. (He had to call her “Miss Irving.”)
His sister moved on at year’s end, but Joe stayed another three years, boarding with a local family while taking the train home to Trail on weekends.
After finishing Grade 8, he went to Nelson to write his high school entrance exams.
“You had to write your government exams in town here at Central School. I passed with the highest marks of any kid in the valley. I won the prize from the Women’s Institute.”
That fall, he began high school in Trail, but within a few months, the family moved back to the country, and Irving’s formal education ended.
“I should have gotten hold of a correspondence course, but it wasn’t done,” he says.
Instead, he did odd jobs for farmers, and then worked on the City of Nelson’s hydro plant expansion, followed by construction of the fertilizer plant at Warfield, where he began to learn boiler work.
“I was getting experience at every branch of the trade and getting to be a key man on the crew… I could also read the blueprints for a multi-storey building without any problem. I was thinking that I could go anywhere and hopefully get a job as an ironworker.”
AN IRONWORKER’S LIFE
Irving joined the Ironworkers union in 1936, and worked on the Lions Gate Bridge. He’s believed to be the only person left from its construction.
Over the next 40 years, he worked steadily, rarely turning down a job, except when there were multiple offers to choose from.
“In the late ‘40s and ‘50s, one job just followed another all the way along. If you wanted to work, there was no shortage. Once I joined the Dominion Bridge Co., I stayed with them year after year.”
He played key roles in many projects, including some close to home, such as the Nelson post office, Kootenay Lake span, Celgar pulp mill, and Trail armories building.
But more often, he was asked to head far away. His reply, almost invariably: “I said OK.”
“For a young man, I was in charge of some pretty responsible jobs because I learned my trade, every part of it,” he says. “That was my idea when I was young: to be good at it, which I guess I was.
“It was a very interesting life because I had the chance to work on some of the biggest projects anywhere, and be in charge of them. I was pretty proud of the work I did.”
He takes special pride in the bridge over the Rock Creek canyon — 330 feet (110 metres) from creek to deck — and a crushing chamber two miles underground at Kimberley’s now-closed Sullivan mine that will never be seen again.
Irving also worked on the Hugh Keenleyside dam, a memorable job for the wrong reason: it was the site of his closest call.
“Without any warning a piece of lumber… hit me on the top of my head and knocked me down to my knees,” he recalls. It also hit another man in the side, who began to fall from the scaffold, but Irving caught him.
Irving suffered no more than a sore neck, thanks to his hard hat. He was later presented with a gold hard hat, emblematic of workplace safety.
Irving wore that hat a few years ago to the grand opening of a new bridge near Golden, where he was an honoured guest, having worked on the bridge it replaced.
Then-premier Gordon Campbell was there as well and made a bee-line for Irving.
“Where did you get that hat?” he exclaimed.
They posed for pictures together. Irving was too gracious to point out he was a lifelong CCF and NDP supporter.
A HIGH SCHOOL GRAD AT LAST
Long after his retirement, Irving decided to go back to school.
In his early 90s, living on his ranch at Crescent Valley, he signed up for correspondence courses to finally get his high school diploma. He earned high marks and was honoured as a special guest at Mount Sentinel’s graduation ceremonies in 2005.
He followed that by publishing his autobiography, Red Iron Over the Canyon, which detailed his Kootenay upbringing and long career in ironwork. He has since completed a sequel, due out soon.
Irving is a bit hard of hearing now, but otherwise doing great. Despite a dangerous profession, he has all of his digits.
He notes that unlike many of his fellow ironworkers, he didn’t smoke: “I never did. I think that’s one thing that helps me. Smoking is a terrible bloody habit.”
Sylvia, his wife of 44 years, says Joe’s easy-going demeanor may also be key to his longevity.
“He never really worried about anything. At least never appeared to. He just took everything so easy. If I got upset about something, he couldn’t understand why.”
And he evidently has good genes: his late sister Molly lived to 100 as well.
Irving will mark his birthday with a party on Monday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m at Mountain Lakes seniors community, where he and Sylvia live. It’s expected to draw about 65 family and friends, including all nine children — Joe’s four and Sylvia’s five from previous marriages.
Joe’s driver’s license also expires on Monday. Although he doesn’t drive much anymore, he’s thinking of getting it renewed.