Even to the end of his long and varied life, Willis Irvin Jr. wasn’t the type of man who let many obstacles impede him.
“He was a man of many passions,” said his friend David McLeod. “Whatever he had a passion for – tennis, history, ministry – he went all out and tried to get as many people involved as possible.”
Irvin, 86, died Friday at the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home. He was a graduate of The Citadel, a World War II veteran who fought at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, a former Realtor, an author, and an ordained Presbyterian minister known for his ministries to prisoners and the area’s homeless.
Born in Augusta in 1925, Irvin was the son of the prominent architect, Willis Irvin Sr. He conducted many tours of the homes and buildings his father designed in Augusta’s Summerville area, which include the former William Robinson school on Williams Street.
Irvin made his mark in many areas, but perhaps he was best-known for his tennis career, playing on The Citadel’s team in college and winning numerous tournaments and trophies during his long career. He was a highly ranked tennis player, even into his 80s. In 2008, he was ranked 14th in the Southern Sectional Rankings in the 80-year-old category on men’s singles by the United States Tennis Association.
Irvin was also instrumental in establishing the facility that later became the Newman Tennis Center, according to the Rev. Paul Sherwood, of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church, where Irvin was a member.
McLeod said Irvin had taught tennis to “literally thousands” of Augustans during his lifetime and was an avid player until the last couple of years, when his body began to fail him.
“He had a great passion for introducing the game of tennis to people,” McLeod said. “I was fortunate enough to be in some of the same tournaments with him and to watch him. He loved to compete.”
Irvin was also a proud World War II veteran, known for wearing Silver Star or Purple Heart caps wherever he went. During the war, he fought with the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 2nd Armored Division, nicknamed “Hell on Wheels.” The unit liberated many towns in then-Holland and was the first American division to enter Berlin.
“I wanted to be the first one to find Hitler,” Irvin told The Augusta Chronicle in 2002, adding that he intended to shave off the dictator’s mustache. “We were all very gung-ho trying to reach Berlin.”
One oft-told story goes that after he landed in Normandy, Irvin found a phone and called Berlin using the German he had learned in school. He got a secretary’s number and asked to speak to Adolf Hitler himself, according to Guy McLeod, David McLeod’s father.
“He asked, ‘What’s the weather like in Berlin?’ ” McLeod said. “Well, tell the Fuhrer it’s going to be raining bullets and bombs before long.”
Irvin wrote a memoir, The Point of the Arrow, recounting his military exploits in Europe; his service earned him a Silver Star for bravery, and he was twice awarded the Purple Heart.
He traveled back to Europe several times for anniversary gatherings of the D-Day invasion, his friends said.
“He was a real war hero,” Guy McLeod said. “He may have been eccentric, but he really did all those things in the war.”
McLeod said Irvin was never much of a planner, but always acted on a desire to help others and to involve those around him in his life. After Irvin finished his book, he campaigned to take copies to American troops deployed overseas, McLeod said.
“He went around trying to raise money to go to Iraq to give copies to the soldiers because he thought his book would raise morale,” McLeod said. “He’s been that way all his life.”
His second wife, Shirley Irvin, said they were married in March 2009 after a long friendship in which they exchanged books and had many discussions about Scripture over lunch.
“The Lord turned my heart to him,” she said. “I’m glad, because we were able to get him diagnosed.”
Irvin said her husband’s eccentricities became more odd and problematic in the past two years, and he was ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
She said the McLeod family stepped in to help care for him in the final stages of life, when he had little money or resources.
One of the last things Willis Irvin did on his own was make a trip to the Netherlands in September 2009 for the anniversary of the liberation of Maastricht, one of the cities freed from Nazi rule by the 2nd Armored Division.
“We tried everything to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen,” his wife said. “He had to go, and he did.”
According to an article from a Dutch newspaper, Irvin suddenly appeared unannounced one day at the mayor’s office in Maastricht, much to the puzzlement of everyone there.
Undeterred by his lack of appointment, Irvin asked to see the mayor and regaled those who cared to listen with tales from World War II and showed them his book, which he hoped the mayor would like to translate and publish in Europe.
According to the newspaper, Irvin eventually got to speak with the mayor, who arranged for him to stay another night in a nice hotel and ensured that the old veteran made his flight back to Georgia.
“He came back with this newspaper with his picture in it and everything,” Shirley Irvin said. “They really treated him like a hero.”
Irvin will be buried with military honors at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Summerville Cemetery. A memorial service will follow at 11 a.m. at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church.