WILMINGTON — Professionally, John Iwasyk is a scientist, a chemical engineer who spent nearly 50 years at Dupont’s Experimental Station in Alapocas.
The Pike Creek resident also may as well have a Ph.D. in historical preservation, having invested as many years in various local organizations since coming to Delaware in 1960.
The list of organizations is impressive: Historic Red Clay Valley and its offshoot, the Wilmington and Western Railroad; the North Mill Creek Hundred Association; the Delaware Nature Society; Friends of Brandywine Springs; Delaware Greenways; Red Clay Scenic Highways; the Delaware Museum Association; and the Westgate Farms Civic Association.
For his efforts, Iwasyk received the 2013 Paul Wilkinson Lifetime Achievement Award from Gov. Jack Markell in October at Dover Downs. It was the highest of the 25 Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Service Awards presented at the ceremony.
Iwasyk downplayed the award recently, saying others have done as much or more than him. His desire to serve these groups stems from his interest in historical preservation and his scientific background.
“It’s really just part of my nature” to get involved, he said recently at his home in Westgate Farms. “It’s the engineering instinct. You see a problem; you know pretty much how to solve it. You just sit down and solve it and move on.”
He and his wife of 53 years, Kathleen, raised six children, but his volunteer pursuits didn’t interfere with his family commitments. “If I calculate how many hours I spent on it per day, it’s under two. As an engineer, you begin to deal with all kinds of things.
“The family is always first. My wife is No. 1. I was always able to juggle things around, and I never took on more than I could handle.”
Follow that train
Iwasyk first came to Delaware in 1955 as a co-op student from Northwestern University and returned for good five years later. Almost immediately, he immersed himself into the local community, volunteering with Historical Red Clay Valley Inc., which operates the Wilmington and Western Railroad. He’s a big fan of railroads.
“I grew up west of Chicago next to the largest railroad yards in the world, between two other railroads, and I used to walk to school,” he said. “When I started work permanently at Dupont, I was driving down Lancaster Pike, and there’s a little railroad crossing. I saw the local company towing a steam engine. I’d grown up with steam engines, so I said, ‘I’m sure I can follow it, see where it’s going.’
“I followed it up to Yorklyn, and it was being restored there. So I found out about it, and that was the same time as they started this railroad, in 1960.”
He is currently the vice president of the Wilmington and Western Railroad Corp., and he previously served as a track inspector. He has been on the board of HRCV since 1966.
Iwasyk is especially proud of the work done by the Kennett Pike Civic Association, which in the early 1970s worked on the Evergreen Plan. He was invited to serve based on his work with the North Mill Creek Hundred Association.
“I looked at the plan and I said everything’s green but Hockessin. There are no parks,” he said.
The group met with county councilman Joe Biden and helped establish two parks in Hockessin that are still in use today.
A few years later, Iwasyk and Biden, who by this time had been elected to the United States Senate, had another encounter. Their children were classmates at Archmere Academy, and the two fathers were enlisted to help out at the senior prom.
“The senior prom came along and Joe and I were blowing up balloons. His always went higher,” Iwasyk joked.
The Iwasyks also have devoted much of their time to their church. They have been members of St. Mary of the Assumption in Hockessin since before the current church was dedicated in 1965. The family belonged to St. Joseph on the Brandywine for a year, then worshiped at St. John the Evangelist in Hockessin and St. Patrick in Ashland until the new church was built.
Today at St. Mary of the Assumption, Iwasyk is a minister to the homebound, but for a while he took Communion to just one person.
“They fixed me up with a nursing home that has 50, so I’m not bored anymore,” he said.
Some of his children attended St. Joseph on the Brandywine School, and he was on the school board, but when it closed, Iwasyk and others from St. Mary of the Assumption went to work to find an alternative for the students. The parish forged a partnership with Corpus Christi Parish in Elsmere to co-sponsor Corpus Christi School. The two parishes are now part of All Saints School.
He also started the Men’s Club at the parish, and he is involved with preservation of the Coffee Run plantation, the plot of land that was the original site of the first Catholic church in Delaware. At one time there was a rectory and barn and the cemetery, but much of what had been preserved was destroyed by fire a few years ago.
Among those buried at Coffee Run are many Irish workers who died in industrial accidents at Dupont, Iwasyk said. Many of the graves are unmarked and fall outside the marked boundaries of the cemetery.
When not involved in historic preservation, Iwasyk and his wife like to travel. They go to Boston frequently, as one daughter lives there and another is in nearby Providence, R.I. Boston is also Kathleen Iwasyk’s hometown. The couple also returns to Chicago on occasion to see his extended family. They also like to spend time with their 14 grandchildren – seven boys and seven girls, and they spend two months a year in Naples, Fla., where, they say, they run into a fair number of fellow parishioners.
Iwasyk said others could have been chosen for the Wilkinson Award. “It’s quite a surprise. You never plan on them. When they come, they come.”
A longer version of this article appears at www.thedialog.org.