John Ward Willson Loose, who could look at almost any building in Lancaster and tell you the name of the architect, the builder, the year it was constructed and a history of the families who lived there across generations, died Friday after an illness.
He was 85.
Loose, whom everyone called "Jack," was described as an extraordinary and irreplaceable resource who either knew every local fact, from the mundane to the obscure, or was able to get his fingertips on it within minutes.
"He knew more about Lancaster than any person, any book ever," Peter Seibert, executive director of the National Council for History Education in College Park, Md., said. "He knew the big facts, the little details and everything in between.
"I trusted Jack Loose's guesses as much as I trusted most people's facts," said Seibert, a former president of Heritage Center Museum in Lancaster.
Loose was a stickler for details and spent many a late night and thousands of volunteer hours in his office at Lancaster County Historical Society, listening to classical music and poring over dusty volumes, with his pickup truck the sole vehicle in the parking lot on North President Avenue.
Asked in 2008 what made him tick, Loose told a newspaper reporter: "I'm interested in what human beings do. Whatever people did, it was meat for my mill."
Loose, who never married - "I'm fiercely independent," he once said, "(and) I like not having to ask permission of anybody" - lived in Lancaster Township and died at Hospice of Lancaster County on Friday afternoon.
Friends said he was doing research and preparing to add to his voluminous body of work before he fell ill about two months ago.
"So many things he had in his head will never be recorded," James B. McMullin, a former historical society board member, said. "Toward the end, he said he always wanted to do the history of all the mining in Lancaster County and write about Price's Boys."
Price's Boys is the name of an informal group of 13 Lancastrians who met through the Boy Scouts in the 1940s; the seven surviving members remain close friends to this very day, and Loose was preparing to write about them before he became ill.
"He said, 'Time's run out on me. I just can't get that done,' " McMullin said. About Loose's broad knowledge of the county and its history, he said: "I wish I knew 1 percent of what he knew."
Loose was president emeritus and one of only a handful of fellows of the historical society. He served as the historical society's president from 1973 to 1992.
He was fierce about accuracy and was known to phone or send letters to newspaper reporters with corrections to their copy.
Loose, for example, repeatedly debunked myths such as the long-standing idea that Lancaster is the country's oldest inland city; he was instrumental in removing a number of historical markers stating that falsehood.
Loose was on the boards of numerous clubs and historical societies throughout the county and attended most every meeting of each.
Loose had also been involved in Republican politics here since the 1940s, joining the Young Republican Committee as soon as it got started in the late 1940s. He served as the county prothonotary from 1956 to 1960 and was a longtime Republican committeeman.
Loose, who spent nearly four decades as a school history, government and economics teacher at Donegal High School, could spin endless tales about local history - from stodgy political battles to scandalous gossip from the county's underbelly.
Loose was not known to sugarcoat: he wrote of the Ku Klux Klan's presence here and of saloons that also served as polling places. One of his books is titled "Brewing in Lancaster: Legal and Otherwise."
He authored several other books and hundreds of historical essays and papers, many of them for the Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, a quarterly magazine for which he had been editor-in-chief since 1956.
Tom Ryan, president and chief executive officer of the historical society, said Loose's passion and knowledge of local history, which earned him the unofficial title of county historian, are irreplaceable.
"He had a very genealogical mind, in some ways. He could look at a building or street or business and talk generationally about them," Ryan said. "It was never just about the people in charge now. He could tell you about their fathers and their mothers and their grandfathers and grandmothers.
"It was a remarkable talent on his part."
Besides history, Loose enjoyed horticulture, classical music, tragic drama and poetry, hiking, model making and oil painting and collage.
Loose had been a member of Unitarian Universalist Church on West Chestnut Street since 1950 and served as the church's historian.
He earned a bachelor's degree in secondary education from Millersville University in 1947 and a master's degree in history in 1967.
He was the son of the late Irwin H. Loose and Anne Willson Loose.
He is survived by a sister, Dorothy, wife of Patrick Boardman of Aiken, S.C.
A native of Manheim, Loose was a 1943 graduate of McCaskey High School. In fact, it was as a student working on a class paper that he made his first trip to the historical society, which was then on North Duke Street.
In retelling the story several years ago, Loose characteristically made note of the small details of the experience - the names of the people he met, the jangling bell that announced him, the elderly woman who curtly asked him what he wanted.
The society, as it turned out, would become his home away from home.
A service celebrating Loose's life will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster, 538 W. Chestnut St. Friends may call at Kearney A. Snyder Funeral Home, 141 E. Orange St., from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.