Michael Alan Hirsch July 29, 1960 - August 3, 2022
I died as I was born: a “”nichtsnutz.””
That was my German-American grandfather’s term for me, Michael Alan Hirsch, born July 29, 1960.
I grew to appreciate the description. Nichtsnutz means mischievous child. I took it to mean someone who was willing to liven up a get-together and make people laugh.
(My family usually tolerated my high jinks, even enjoyed them, but collectively put their foot down, saying I went too far to set up a betting pool to choose which day I would die.)
Perhaps it was because I was the youngest of four, or maybe it was that I took after the fun-loving Irish side of the family, but it was probably because I was like my mother.
I saw humor as a way to bring people together.
My mother wanted me to follow in her father’s footsteps and work as an accountant. But I should have known in high school that I had the wrong temperament. In my senior accounting class, I wrote a newspaper called The CPA Daily that mocked bean counters.
I made the switch in my junior year of college, changing from accounting to communications, the smartest move of my life.
It’s how I met my Mel, the woman I had been searching for during my first 20 years. She shone with beauty and intellect and a light in her eyes that still made my heart stop a beat up until I took my last breath. She was my North Star, and I would follow her anywhere.
I also discovered a love of writing, journalism and quirky newsrooms. I followed this path and began a fascinating career.
Mel, journalism and I were loyal companions over the decades. Right out of college, we landed the only two reporting jobs at the weekly Lake Placid News, and we married four months after graduation.
I found my writing voice late in life. I was diagnosed with ALS in late 2019, at age 59. The next two years I started writing occasional essays about my journey as I slowly lost my ability to walk and move my arms, and began to struggle to talk and breathe. It was cathartic for me, and readers said it helped them as they or loved ones struggled with degenerative diseases.
I was honored this year to win first prize for best commentary from the Society of Features Journalism for newspapers our size. I was also named the second-best columnist in Pennsylvania by the Keystone Press Awards for the same essays.
When I was first diagnosed, I came up with a daily mantra: “”ALS will kill me, but it won’t break me.””
I’ve tried to live the last three years of my life this way. Yes, this disease is terrible and exhausting for the entire family. However, I did my best to be in the moment as much as possible and to enjoy my time with my Mel, my daughters and their partners, my neighbors, friends, co-workers and pets.
They all brought me tremendous joy during this time. Every night just before drifting off to sleep, Mel and I would count our blessings, and there were many despite our adversities.
And boy, did I have fun. Some of my Facebook postings reflected my nichtsnutz personality. I drove my power wheelchair at top speed – 6 miles an hour – into 10 full-size garbage cans arranged in the middle of our street in a Lower Macungie development. In my “”Grinches get Stinches”” video, I attached a 10-foot spear to my wheelchair and, using a scalpel from a doctor buddy, severed the head of an inflatable Christmas icon.
I drove through an 8-foot pile of leaves, followed by a pack of tweens and teens popping wheelies on their bicycles. And finally, I dressed as a bulldog and drove over five beloved Boo-Bah toys of mine, leaving streaks of Boo-Bah color on the pavement.
The point of these videos was to make readers laugh, entertain myself and to show that a full life with ALS is possible.
As a journalist, I worked just about every job in the newsroom ? reporter, copy editor, bureau chief, assistant news editor, arts and entertainment editor, business editor, features editor and, finally, opinion editor.
I was always gratified when my reporters won national awards. My business reporters for The Morning Call won more than 10 awards. I’m particularly proud of an award won by former staff writer Sam Kennedy for stories that shut down Lehigh Valley College. At the time, the for-profit school was the fastest-growing in the Lehigh Valley, and the stories showed the college saddled students with high-interest loans.
The Morning Call features section was named one of the best sections in the country four times in six years. One year it was named the best features section in the country for newspapers our size.
But my family has always provided the greatest joy. Our eldest daughter, Emily, and her husband, Erick (whom I usually call “”Erick with a K””), run a successful photo studio based in Brooklyn. Emily has been a joyful kindred spirit for 31 years, and I admire her devotion to her family as well as her job. Erick quickly became a son, a friend and a fellow adventurer.
Daughter Mathilde has the most amazing sense of social and environmental conscience that I have ever seen. She moved with her partner, Grayson, to the Adirondacks to help care for me as I entered hospice in June. They have proven to be loving and capable caregivers.
A few of my other blessings: amazing neighbors Fran and Judy Naab, who walked our rescue dog, Marcy, and helped us in innumerable other ways over the last three years. There was also my “”Pennsylvania brother,”” Tom Warren, who has risen to every challenge and has helped me each step of the ALS journey, with his wife, Janet. Dozens of friends and neighbors helped and I’m grateful for each and every one.
It’s sad for me to be the youngest child, but the first to pass away. I will miss my brother Bob, sister Linda and sister Kathy more than I can ever let them know. All of them – Bob, in particular – stepped forward in recent months to help me and my family as we struggled with growing caregiving demands.
I have one message to pass on to my family, friends, neighbors and co-workers: I love you to Pluto and back.
Editor’s note: Mike was an editor at The Morning Call since 2001, the last few years as director of Content/Opinion and Community Engagement. He died Wednesday, Aug. 3.
SERVICES: Calling hours will be 4-8 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Stephens Funeral Home, 274 N. Krocks Road, Upper Macungie Township 18106. A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 11 at Cathedral Church of the Nativity, 321 Wyandotte Street, Bethlehem, PA 18015.
Contributions in Mike’s memory can be made to the The ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter, 321 Norristown Rd., Suite 260, Ambler, PA 19002 or The Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36104 or Adirondack Land Trust, P.O. Box 130, Keene, NY 12942.
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