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Graeme Spence Irvine (1931–1998)

by Graham Downie

This article was published online in 2023

Graeme Spence Irvine (1931–1998), humanitarian worker, was born on 12 July 1931 at Launceston, Tasmania, younger son of Tasmanian-born parents Andrew Clyde Spence Irvine, accountant, and his wife Enid Ione, née Fry. His father worked for the Hydro-Electric Commission. Graeme received his secondary education at Launceston High School (1943–48), during which he began working in an insurance office. In 1947 he was introduced by his father to Bill Clack—the two met while serving in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II—who was seeking to reactivate the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). As a YMCA officer attached to the RAAF, Clack became well known for providing airmen returning from missions with refreshments. Knowing little about the organisation, Graeme declined Clack’s invitation to join it. At home one night because his weekly tennis match was rained out, he was visited by a soaked Clack, who had walked several blocks in the pouring rain to ask if he would attend a YMCA meeting. Graeme accepted. The three attendees became the founding members of the Launceston YMCA Youth Club. Clack invited Graeme to serve as president until elections could be held.

Clack led Irvine to a deep Christian faith, which profoundly influenced his life. His humanitarian career began in 1953 when he became director of youth services at the Presbyterian Department of Social Welfare in Sydney. Meanwhile he also attended the YMCA College for Leadership Training (1952–53), where he gained a diploma of youth leadership. As director, he established inner-city youth programs that included experimental outreach to street groups. In 1954 he succeeded Clack as general secretary of the Launceston YMCA and held the position until 1958. On 14 April that year he married Frances Patricia Virgoe at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney. The couple met on a flight to Broken Hill, on which she was working as an air hostess. They subsequently moved to Adelaide, where he served as assistant general secretary of the city’s YMCA (1958–64) and then its general secretary (1964–68).

In 1961 Irvine completed a diploma of management at the South Australian Institute of Technology, Adelaide. The following year, he met the director of World Vision Canada, Bernard Barron, who was in Australia to arrange a speaking tour for the evangelical Christian missionary Gladys Aylward. Irvine joined the planning committee for her Adelaide visit. Barron returned to Australia in 1966 to establish a national World Vision office and offered him the position of its executive director, which he accepted. The family moved to Melbourne where he took up his new role on 1 January 1968. His professional orientation included three months overseas, beginning with a month in the organisation’s headquarters in California, United States of America, before visiting Canada and much of East and South-East Asia.

Ambitious, Irvine quickly made an impression with his international colleagues. Aiming to expand World Vision’s reach, he increased the organisation’s media presence and its connections with churches; helped form volunteer networks in major cities; established aid programs; and organised religious conferences in Australia and the Pacific. While some were cautious about expansionary endeavours when the organisation was struggling, ‘others recognized in the different voice from Down Under a movement toward global partnership that would bring historic change to World Vision in the 1970s’ (Irvine 1996, 37). In 1974 he agreed to move to California to act as a director of World Vision’s international relations divisions. In fieldwork conducted soon after, as Cambodia’s civil war intensified, he helped evacuate twenty-three babies from Phnom Penh to Bangkok despite anti-government Khmer Rouge forces having the airport and perimeter of the capital under constant rocket attack.

As Irvine worked to re-establish World Vision’s global humanitarian work, he visited every major conflict zone, including those in Europe, Africa, Central America, and the Middle East. Appointed the organisation’s vice-president of international relations in April 1985, he became responsible for fostering ties with the United Nations, churches, and international organisations such as the World Council of Churches. Two years later he established World Vision’s international liaison office in Geneva, Switzerland. At that time the organisation was facing internal tensions related to poor communication between member countries and central management, which peaked at the 1987 directors' conference in Sierra Madre, California.

Summoned to World Vision headquarters in September 1988, Irvine was invited to act as international president. The appointment soon became permanent, making him the fifth president of World Vision International (1989–95). In this position he led the drafting of the organisation’s ‘core values’ (Irvine 1996, 135), which were adopted by the International Board in March 1990 and signed by every participant at the World Vision Council meeting six months later. By 1992 he had overseen the development of a new mission statement that was adopted that year. Deeply affected by military conflict, he was ‘sickened by war’ (Irvine 1996, 171). In 1994 he launched World Vision’s ‘Children of War’ program to help lost, abandoned, or orphaned children; to return them to their families or community, and to provide them with counselling and support.

Irvine’s life was marked by his ecumenism, his deep spirituality and devotion to Christ, and his compassion and empathy, especially for children and those in need. He was a servant, leader, mentor, and courageous diplomat when negotiating with hostile groups. Under his guidance, World Vision ‘grew into the largest privately funded Christian relief and development organisation in the world’ (Sheppeard 1999, 1). With offices in seventy-four countries, by 1995 it had an annual budget of $US269 million. Retiring that year, he returned to Sydney with Frances, where he died of renal cancer on 6 September 1998. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he was cremated after a funeral service at St Michael and All Angels Anglican Church, Newport. He was posthumously appointed AM on 26 January 1999, with his family being notified of the honour the day after his death.

Research edited by Matthew Cunneen

Select Bibliography

  • Costello, Tim. ‘Life Spent Serving Needs of Others.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 21 August 2013, 43
  • Irvine, Fran. Personal communication with the author
  • Irvine, Graeme. Best Things in the Worst Times: An Insider’s View of World Vision. Wilsonville: BookPartners Inc., 1996
  • Irvine, Graeme S. ‘Curriculum Vitae.’ Author’s private collection. Copy held on ADB file
  • Olson, Warwick. ‘Aid Group Head Battled for the Children of War.’ Australian, 17 September 1998, 16
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Popular Man for YMCA.’ 2 April 1947, 8
  • Sheppeard, Amanda. ‘Honour to Aid Chief Came Just One Day Too Late.’ Manly Daily, 26 January 1999, 1
  • World Vision U.S. ‘09/06/98 – Death of Graeme Irvine.’ World Vision Press Release

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graham Downie, 'Irvine, Graeme Spence (1931–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/irvine-graeme-spence-32656/text40548, published online 2023, accessed online 12 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

12 July, 1931
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia

Death

6 September, 1998 (aged 67)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (kidney)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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