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Herb Hecsh

 

     It is a pity that Herb didn’t write his own eulogy because it would be wryly funny and entirely entertaining.  For a man who loved a good joke, the cruel absurdity of life’s last laugh would not have been lost on him.

     And Herb could find the words. His vocabulary was rich, his syntax perfect; he did what few people do these days: he spoke in complete sentences.  When he talked it sounded as though he had writers behind him.  Indeed, sometimes he did, for he so admired good prose that he committed to memory nice sentences of E.B. White or H.L. Mencken as others do passages of poetry.

     I dwell on Herb’s language because though we knew each other for almost forty years, I realize, looking back, that a good many of them were at a distance, so that our friendship was in no small part epistolary.  As a consequence, he remains in my memory not only in the time we shared each other’s company in Philadelphia, but also, more tangibly, in stacks of letters, neatly typed on his blue IBM Selectric.  They would make my wife, Kate, laugh out loud.  This was delightful even if it made me a little jealous.

     Underlying any exchange with Herb, written or spoken, was an irony and quick wit, the dryly fatalistic Jewish sense of humor enhanced with an ecumenical breadth.  One day, coming into the lobby of his Rittenhouse Square apartment, and noticing all of the canes, wheelchairs and walkers of its aging tenants, he quipped that he felt like he was in the Tel Aviv branch of Lourdes. This is classic Herb: observant and funny, but good naturedly so.

     Herb had the cultural knowledge of any classical musician but Julliard’s narrow training did not satisfy his curiosity.  He read science, literature, history, politics, the model of the “interested layman”.  I suspect he is one of the few swing jazz clarinetists who, when seeing a wheelchair on his dance floor, not only knew its occupant to be Stephen Hawking, but had actually read his latest book.

     This diversity of interests, together with a satchel of anecdotes from a life spent doing unusual jobs – orchestra player, Broadway pit player, radio host, academic dean, swing jazz player – made for very interesting company.  In one of his last visits to Philadelphia – I think it must have been for his 80th birthday – we had a little party for him and he held forth in fine form.  Afterwards, our friend Bill Morlok commented, “I know Herb likes to talk a lot, but you have to admit, it is really interesting talk.”

     Though Herb’s talents were many, he may not have exploited any of them to the fullest owing to an unfortunate tendency to change direction at precisely the wrong time.  He left the orchestra world just prior to its becoming a financially secure career, for example, a decision he would often cite with regret.  But there were many of these ill-timed vocational tacks.  Whether they were the result of simple bad luck, some darker lingering fear of permanence, or an admirable unwillingness to suffer boredom and fools, they nonetheless left him improvising a working life that never rewarded him according to his gifts.

     But enough for the moment of his gifts and his charm. Herb was kind.  That seems too bland an adjective.  He was genuinely caring and thoughtful.  And spontaneously generous.  There he’d be at the door on a fine spring day with a new watering can for our garden, or a toy for our son, Clint, just because, well, he was thinking of us.

     I mentioned that for much of the time I knew him, Herb lived far away.  There were two major moves, the first to New Orleans for several years and then, after a brief return to Philadelphia, he and Joan moved to New York.  In both of these leave-takings we found ourselves to be the beneficiaries of the things he left behind.  So our household, and now our son’s household, are dotted with his effects.  There are his pictures on the wall, his books scattered on our shelves, his chair.  I write this on his old desk and, for a while, even typed on that blue IBM Selectric.  All of these were silent reminders of our absent friend.

     I am thankful that the end for Herb, when it came, was mercifully short and that to the very last he held on to that bright, witty mind.  It is difficult to face this third departure, this final one, and to realize that the conversations are over and the absence, once merely inconvenient, is now irreparable.

     But my sadness at his death will ever be overcome by the memory of his delightful company, by the simple good fortune of having known him and by the joy of his long and loving friendship.

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