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Longtime commentator Dick Hirsch remains amused

Dick Hirsch has been sharing his dry and occasionally wry sense of humor for decades  in columns.

The 84-year-old Buffalonian began writing columns in 1957 for the Buffalo Courier-Express. Later, he hosted and produced three TV shows on PBS -- "Call 17," "In Person" and "Man in the News" -- from 1968 to 1987. He also worked 25 years for a printing company, and owned a public relations business.

In 1984, Hirsch began a weekly column at Business First. Now, after 33 years of churning out 1,700 columns of either 600 or 750 words in length, more than 100 of them have been packaged into a new anthology, "A New Bathtub for the White House and Other Intriguing Tales," Stonecroft Publishing, 277 pages, $26.95. The book is available for sale at Talking Leaves Books.

The book jacket says of Hirsch: "He is a curious man and he has never lost his enthusiasm for the work."

Dick Hirsch

That seemed like a good place to start.

The world seems to endlessly amuse you.

I'm either amused or bemused. I'm retired, basically, but I sometimes marvel at the fact I can get so enthusiastic about the writing that I do, and the columns that I write.

I had a significant event in my life about 20 years ago. I went to hear Nora Ephron at a book signing at the Jewish Community Center. I loved her writing, and I thought she was one of the best speakers I ever heard at a book signing, The point she made was that everything is copy.

She learned that from her parents, who were screenwriters. They taught her to be aware of the world around her, including the behavior of people. After I heard her advice, I changed my approach and became more comfortable writing in the first person. I began to see story possibilities that others people didn't see.

Apparently, luggage, for one. You wrote in "Merrily, We Roll Along, Thanks to Marvin" how suitcases came to have wheels so people could pull them through airports.

I was waiting in an airport. You don't see many people carrying suitcases anymore. You see people pulling them. I looked it up and found it to be an inspiring sales story. Marvin Sandow, whose company manufactured and sold suitcases, was dead at the time, so I talked to someone in his family, the son-in-law I think.

You were a door-to-door salesman one summer for the Fuller Brush Company on Buffalo's East Side, which you have said proved to be excellent training for being a journalist.

Doing what I do is not only asking questions, but listening to answers. The first few days of ringing a doorbell with a sample case was very hard, but after a few times it built up my confidence.

You are a defender of less popular vegetables. Brussels sprouts, for instance. You write in "This is No Ordinary Vegetable": "It gives me pleasure each fall to buy a freshly cut stalk from the farmer each week and walk to the car like I'm carrying the Olympic torch." Someone needs to defend the Brussels sprout, don't they?   

"They do get a bad rap. A lot of people are afraid of them. There are no vegetables I don't like.

You demonstrate similar empathy for spinach. "In "The Wisdom of Popeye Lives On," you say: "It has never been easy for spinach. Not ever....Spinach has always needed a good public relations campaign, but the only one who ever stepped forward to take on the assignment was Popeye, a cartoon character so muscle-bound he couldn't type a news release or write a business plan. Later, you say that "hanging out with the gluttonous Wimpy cast some doubt on his expertise as an adviser on health and nutrition." 

I think of the famous New Yorker cartoon where the kid says, 'I say it's spinach and I say to hell with it!' Spinach is not glamorous when you cook it. You put a whole bunch in a pot, and when you're through it's a small amount. But it's healthy, and has a lot of iron.

You had fun with a common expression in "Distinguishing the Other Stuff From Shinola." You wrote, "Here is where we get to the challenging part, the part where it's important to at least mention the phrase that has etched Shinola into a place in the American vernacular. You sympathize with me because you know where I'm going and wondering how I am going to manage to get there." Then, you say the phrase is, "He doesn't know shish from Shinola."   

Since I wrote that there is a company that puts out watches made in Detroit, very expensive watches, called Shinola. I'm sure they know the expression, but I don't think they would incorporate it into their advertising.

You also found that famous general, General Tso, fodder for a column.

I first encountered General Tso's Chicken in a Chinese restaurant in Nebraska. It seems most Chinese restaurants have that dish, and I decided General Tso must be the most famous Chinese general of all. I looked up some information about him, and I wrote the column. Actually, most of the Chinese restaurants in the plazas and neighborhood shopping centers that are fairly simple have it. If you walk into a high-end Chinese restaurant, they don't. It's a populist recipe, I guess.

How has the world of media changed over time from your perspective?

Journalism today embraces so many different mediums. When I started the two newspapers were the primary source of news. They ceded that position. When there were two papers, everyone was trying to get it in first. Now the coverage seems more relaxed and interpretive. At City Hall, there were two of us from the Courier-Express and three or four from The Buffalo News, depending on what day it is.

How do you still manage to come up with material each week?

It's on my mind all the time, but I don't worry about it. I don't know, it's the way my mind is. I can't explain who or why, but I see things that I think are stories. Things come up. Sometimes they come out of the air."




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