Ashdown Logo

The Irvines (1966-1974)

Terry and Ann Orlando, Ashdown's 4th Housemaster
John Withers Irvine, Jr.,
Ashdown's 4th Housemaster

John and Fredna Irvine served as housemasters of Ashdown from 1966 to 1974. The tradition of Housemaster Dinners was started by them during their tenure.

Affiliated with MIT for over 45 years, John Withers Irvine, Jr., (1913-1998) was born in Marshall, Missouri. After graduating from Missouri Valley College in 1934, Dr. Irvine obtained his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from MIT in 1939. Initially serving as a research associate in the Department of Physics, Dr. Irvine eventually became an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Chemistry in 1943, reaching the rank of full professor in 1958. During his time at MIT, Dr. Irvine mainly worked in the area of radioactivity, anion exchange studies, radiochemistry-separation methods, radionuclide production and organic scintillators. He also served as the Executive Officer for the Department of Chemistry from 1966-1979, where he helped plan the new Dreyfus Chemistry Laboratories, Building 18.

John and his wife Fredna were chosen as housemasters in 1966 when Dean Frederick Fassett retired. A former resident of Ashdown House (then Graduate House) from 1934-1938 when it was located in Building E2, Dr. Irvine sought to emulate the leadership he had experienced under Dr. Avery Ashdown. However, when the Irvines arrived, they discovered that most of the graduate residents of Ashdown were completely immersed in their studies and were not active at all in the social life of the House. And so, using Dr. Irvine’s firsthand knowledge of how food can get the attention of graduate students, the Irvines began inviting the residents of each floor of W1 to a buffet supper hosted in their apartment.

In order to get residents to attend the floor dinners, the Irvines would personally knock on the doors of each suite and hand out handwritten invitations. Commonly met with a “We’re too busy”, the Irvines would simply reply, “you have to eat, eat with us and leave.” In the end, nearly all of those who attended these floor dinners would end up staying after dinner was over and spent hours getting to know their neighbors. Often accompanied by impromptu musical performances by residents, the floor dinners eventually became a cherished tradition. Indeed, Avery Ashdown was invited to and attended all the floor dinners he could until his death in 1970, always being surrounded by a large group of students the entire evening.

After 8 years of service to Ashdown, the Irvines retired as housemasters in 1974. Their tenure as housemasters was marked by their sincere dedication to the welfare of the House’s graduate residents, and the continued existence of Housemaster Dinners every year at Ashdown House is a testament to their commitment.

The above information contains information gathered from personal interviews, MIT Tech articles and MIT webpages.

© 2019 MIT. Please report feedback about this website to ashdown-webmaster (at)