No doubt, Herb Kirsh would have approved of the small, warm, memorial service Friday that honored his life in politics and eight decades of life.
Because to remember Herb Kirsh – who at the time he left office in 2010 was the longest-serving legislator (32 years) in the General Assembly – is to hear the voices of all parties and people who not just loved the man, but respected him. He died Tuesday at 84 after a series of falls during the past two months.
Presbyterians and Baptists sat with Jews and Catholics at his home synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Gastonia, and remembered Kirsh not only for his faith, but for his works that helped all people. The entire York County law enforcement staff of the state Department of Natural Resources – the rangers – came to the memorial service for a man who spent a lifetime working to preserve public lands.
“It is not often that someone can be identified as the town, but Clover was Herb Kirsh,” said lifelong friend Marshall Rauch of Gastonia.
Rauch knows what it means to be a Jewish politician in the South. He was the first Jewish state senator in North Carolina history, serving more than 20 years after a stint on the Gastonia City Council. Both Kirsh and Rauch attended Duke University and lived parallel lives of business, politics and religion 15 miles from each other, a state line between them.
Interstate 85 in Gaston County is called the Marshall Rauch Highway.
“Herb Kirsh was a great man,” Rauch said.
After Kirsh came from New York to Clover in 1937, he and his late wife, Sue, spent their entire lives as members of Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Charles Brown spoke of Kirsh as a “good and decent man, a wonderful man,” who spent his life trying to help others have better lives.
For decades, Kirsh ran the department store his Polish immigrant father opened in downtown Clover. He and Sue immersed themselves in community affairs, clubs and causes. By 1970, he had won a seat on the Clover Town Council and later was elected mayor. He became a friend to everybody in town when, on Christmas, the sole Jewish man in Clover would man the emergency dispatch office so everybody else could spend the holiday with their families.
In 1978, Kirsh, a Democrat, won the S.C. House District 47 seat, holding on to it until 2010. His replacement, Republican Tommy Pope was sitting in the second row at Temple Emanuel Friday. He has sponsored a resolution honoring Kirsh that will be read Tuesday when the General Assembly reconvenes.
Many current and former legislators from both parties attended Friday. Kirsh was a lifelong Democrat, but his politics were never party-driven, and he was respected and admired by both sides.
Kirsh never switched parties, despite Republicans efforts to woo him for decades, especially because of his fiscal conservatism.
Former U.S. Rep. John Spratt, the York Democrat who also was in office three decades before losing to a Republican in 2010, described his friend at the memorial service as “a force,” and “his own man, the likes of whom we will not see again.”
Kirsh was instrumental in the late 1970s and early 1980s in blocking a tax plan that would have added boosted taxes on South Carolina residents who work in North Carolina. Kirsh played hardball, Spratt said, telling North Carolina’s politicians that he would not stand for it – and that he would fight at the state line if he had to.
The proposal died, with Kirsh victorious.
Kirsh, the leading Democrat on the House Ways and Means committee, was known throughout his career as the man through whom all budgets passed. State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who served with Kirsh for 18 years, described his “teacher” Kirsh as “a great and dedicated public servant.”
Kirsh was not just a guard against waste and frivolous spending of the public’s cash, Simrill said, he was a “sentry.”
Kevin Kirsh said seeing so many people at the synagogue to honor his father – more than 150 attended Friday’s service – “showed what kind of man my father was. In politics, everybody agreed that he stood for integrity and respect.”