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Sean Kirst: An attempt to explain Irv Weinstein to our kids

Sean Kirst

Irv Weinstein has died.

If you're of a certain age in Western New York, the chances are you're feeling it.

Yet how do you explain to your kids what this means?

They have grown up in the age of Spectrum, of on-demand and YouTube. Television alone offers hundreds of options, and the internet is a galaxy unto itself. If our kids or their kids want news, they can turn to their phones almost in the instant that it happens. The latest information is delivered by countless faces, in countless ways, with countless different styles.

So how do you explain Irv Weinstein in a time like this?

It takes a landing on what feels now like a different planet.

Yet many of us remember a world — let me set my own clock for this one at 46 or 47 years ago — when someone else pumped your gas and your parents still used paper and pencil, not calculators, to figure out the bills.

This was a world where there was only one phone in the house, often hanging on the kitchen wall — and if you wanted to have a private conversation with a friend, you pretty much did it with your mother ironing clothes, about five feet away.

This was a world in which you learned about snow days, up or down, only through long restless waits alongside the radio.

This was a world that usually meant just one television in the house, often black and white, often in the corner of the living room, and that television was dominated by three networks.

Appreciation: Irv Weinstein's grace while battling ALS is a lasting memory

In Buffalo, you had Channel 2, Channel 4 and Channel 7, and every kid knew every new show that came out on each of them each year. Certain things, certain images, always stay with you from each of those stations, and different nights commanded your attention on different channels.

Yet Friday nights, at least in my childhood, belonged to ABC and Channel 7.

Your old man got paid on Thursdays and your mother often did what your family called "the big shopping" on Friday evening, rolling into the house after an hour or two with the week's groceries and maybe a few treats, maybe a cardboard box of Tops potato chips, and maybe, just maybe, a half-gallon of ice cream.

So you sprawled out, eating that stuff in the living room, and you watched "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family" and "Room 222" and "The Odd Couple" and then "Love, American Style," and since this was a Friday and you were already tuned to Channel 7, you stayed up late and watched the news with your parents, cigarette smoke rolling in clouds around the living room, the old man off the next day after a week at the plant.

On would come Irv Weinstein. Today, the media is a jumbled legion of personalities. At that time, it is difficult to describe just how different everything felt about Channel 7 and Irv and his Eyewitness News. The other stations had standard, cheerful sets and news people with the tone and demeanor you'd expect, everything set to match a certain American timbre of the time.

The whole atmosphere of Eyewitness News was different. It was edgier, more incendiary, gently outlaw. Weinstein was all wonderful tough guy attitude, each hard consonant in his speech like a jab, even his body language akin to the way a boxer moves across the ring, shoulders pushing forward, talking about crime and fires and weather with that faint sense of grim that's-the-kind-of-world-we-live-in camaraderie rippling through his voice, the big glasses and the flicker of a smile that somehow told you he was letting you in on the only-we-really-understand-the-beating-heart-of-this-city secret.

One of many YouTube tributes to Irv Weinstein.

He stuck around Buffalo for a long time, until everyone began to fully appreciate just how extraordinary he was, why he mattered so much, an awareness that now rises as both a wistful farewell and a tribute upon his passing.

In an era when so much was homogenized, a time when Buffalo was plummeting because jobs were leaving and panicky civic leaders kept making reflexive decisions about demolition and parking lots and highways and downtown malls in an upside-down attempt to make Buffalo more like cities that were supposedly succeeding, the reality is there was always one true hope, a lesson learned recently only after decades of pain.

The best chance for Buffalo was and is to remain Buffalo, earthy and gritty and tough, a community with a most distinctive flavor.

Weinstein was already there, absolutely who he was. He was as true to himself as the Rockpile, as a glazed doughnut from Freddies, as the industrial torches you saw burning near the smokestacks every night. It is why he brought mesmerized fans to the television even in southern Ontario, because he was beautifully abrupt in style, chopping a path across the airwaves when the rest of the world wanted polyester voices to match polyester suits.

He was a distinct creation of Buffalo, the edgy voice of the station that demanded to know if you knew where your children were, the line repeated cheerfully by all the teenagers busy trying to duck their parents, across the region. Full gratitude for what Weinstein was, for who he was, began to climb later in his career, gratitude that grew into absolute love in his long retirement, as he so gracefully confronted a terrible illness, and yes:

It might be hard for our kids today to fully understand why we so powerfully mourn the passing of this solitary news guy.

Maybe it's simple. Maybe it's because the hardest thing to learn is that sometimes when the world goes one way, you have to go the other, and if you don't, you'll live as part of the crowd and meet eternity that way …

And that's exactly how you'll be remembered.

Not this city, and not this guy who was its voice.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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