New life for columnist Sean Kirst
By Aaron Gifford
Sean Kirst learned about humility in a gritty industrial community south of Buffalo.
His family moved from house to house, always looking for cheaper rent. Many of his relatives died relatively young and Sean and his siblings inherited genes that also made them vulnerable to health problems.
And yet, the award-winning newspaper columnist, husband, father, and author of three books always considered himself very fortunate.
The Kirsts had full bookshelves. They read anything they could get their hands on. And they loved to tell tales and listen to tales, fact or fiction. It was a household that inspired curiosity, creativity, education and a sense of craftsmanship.
“For us,” Kirst said, “story telling was huge.”
Kirst, the 2009 recipient of the prestigious Ernie Pyle award for human interest column writing, took some time recently to tell his own story around the time his latest book, “The Soul of Central New York,” was released.
To follow up that success, Kirst was recently hired by The Buffalo News as a metropolitan columnist.
Kirst, 57, is a native of Dunkirk, in Western New York, near Fredonia. He is the youngest of five siblings. His mother worked as a cleaning lady and his father was employed as a crane operator for Niagara Mohawk. Money was tight in the Kirst household, but all of the schools in their community were good.
Kirst still remembers the names of his favorite English teachers from fourth grade through high school. The Kirst children loved sports. Kirst was a good infielder but considered himself “a frustrated ball player” because his older brothers were exceptional.
He started working for his community paper, The Evening Observer, at age 14. Kirst contributed to the sports page and stuck with it while attending SUNY Fredonia. He hitchhiked to class every morning and remained on campus into the evening to work for the student newspaper, The Leader, where he served as a sports editor and also wrote columns. Kirst brushes off his early success as a student journalist.
“We thought we were artsy,” he said. “We weren’t.”
When Kirst tried his hand at campus news, that’s when he developed a passion for writing stories that could make a difference. He filed an informative piece on how students can protect themselves from local slumlords. As he recalled, “It felt good to write.”
SUNY Fredonia was also where Kirst met his wife, Nora. They got to know each other at a campus picnic. Back then, Kirst said with a laugh, it was rare “for a townie to date a co-ed.”
During one summer semester break, Kirst worked at a Kraft Foods plant. He connected well with his co-workers and learned to appreciate what factory workers go through. He also decided that he didn’t want to make a career of it, and returned to campus with an even stronger passion for writing.
“With jobs like that, my mom would say, ‘I hope your day goes fast’,” he said. “With journalism, my days always go fast. I wish they were twice as long.”
After graduation, Nora got a teaching job in her native Rochester, and Kirst followed her. He signed on for a position at Hillside Children’s Center while he continued looking for newspaper openings. The job entailed working with troubled youth, some of which had been in and out of the criminal justice system. He obtained skills there that would come in handy later on as a journalist.
“I learned more about the reality of life in the cities,” Kirst said. “The challenge was to be consistent, to be empathetic, and to not be manipulated.”
A year later, Kirst was hired by City newspaper in Rochester, a publication that some might compare to the Syracuse New Times. It was considered an alternative publication to the much larger Democrat and Chronicle newspaper, but it was focused on hard news and investigative reporting. The staff included only three reporters and a freelance photographer.
City established a niche by covering issues in individual neighborhoods. The highlight of Kirst’s two years there was producing an expose of repeat drunk driver offenders and the shortfalls of existing laws and policies that did little or nothing to encourage offenders to stop drinking.
“It generated debate about the program,” Kirst said, “so I guess we did our job.”
Falling for Niagara
The next stop for Kirst was the Niagara Gazette. He enjoyed working at City, but the pay was too low and the opportunity in Western New York would better prepare him for work at larger, better-paying papers. At that time, the city of Niagara Falls was a hot place for headlines, rife with corruption, pollution and controversy. The community, Kirst said, “was in economic free fall.” The Gazette also gave Kirst his own column.
In 1988, Kirst arrived in Syracuse, where he remains today.
In his quest to leave The Gazette for a metro daily, Kirst had been in contact with The Syracuse Newspapers, The Buffalo News, and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. When Kirst followed up on the Syracuse job one day in 1988, an editor apologized for the delays and invited him for an interview. That was a personal touch that no other paper offered him before.
“From that moment, I knew it would be a great place to work,” Kirst said.
Kirst was assigned to the Oswego bureau. He loved being able to walk to all of his interviews from the office there. The area was also unique, with the opportunity for “a million great stories,” Kirst recalled.
“Here was this guy from Buffalo,” said Nolan Weidner, then the Oswego bureau chief and a longtime friend of Kirst. “This guy would be calling me at 5:30 at night and saying, ‘I’ve got a couple more stories if you want them,’ and he had already filed two that afternoon. He was unbelievable. But he wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He just had this thing for meeting people and filing stories. He just had a sense of what made a good story.”
Six months later, Kirst took on the overnight general assignment beat at the main office in downtown Syracuse, where he was responsible for running on breaking news. He compares it to playing shortstop in baseball — fast paced and “electric.”
In 1991, Kirst became a sports columnist, revisiting the passion that led him into journalism in the first place. He covered the Buffalo Bills’ historic run to four consecutive Super Bowls. While it was a thrilling experience, it was also painful for the Western New York native to see his favorite team fall short each time after coming so close. He also covered the Syracuse University men’s basketball team’s road to the 1996 National Championship game. He loved sports, but decided in the fall of 1996 that his heart was in news, and accepted a position as the Post-Standard’s regional columnist.
His job was to speak to the concerns of everyday people and write about issues that build communities. That was where Kirst made it big, and he developed a reputation as a guy who was literally willing to get dirty to make improvements, even if it involved picking up trash.
“I do have a soft spot for that,” Kirst said. “First impressions are so powerful. It’s easy to build a coalition of people who want to help you pick up the trash.”
Kirst doesn’t think about which columns he liked the best. He doesn’t regret any columns, but he did say he regrets not writing a column on a rather sensitive issue where he felt he should have clarified his position. This was regarding the new amphitheater on Onondaga Lake. Kirst had been critical of how county officials pursued the amphitheater’s construction without, as he saw it, regard for what would become of the grandstand at the Great New York State Fair.
“I wish I had written a column suggesting that the grand stand could have replaced Chevy Court,” he said. “I wish I had said early in the process that there are other routes they could have followed. I wish I had thought of it.”
Rock ‘n’ Roller
A rock ‘n’ roll fan, Kirst had seen many great shows in the Syracuse area during his time there. His favorite was Bob Dylan with Joni Mitchell, where he was able to get a spot in the front row.
In 2009, Kirst was awarded the Ernie Pyle award for human-interest writing. Traditionally, recipients have hailed from much larger news organizations. The Syracuse columnist was enshrined with the likes of journalism legends Andy Rooney (columnist) Dave Barry (humor columnist), Roger Ebert (movie critic), and Clarence Page, just to name a few. Ernie Pyle wrote a national travel column and was a World War II correspondent.
He covered action in Europe as well as in the Pacific, providing first-hand accounts from the front lines. He was killed in 1945 during an attack on a Pacific Island.
While Kirst certainly appreciated all of the accolades he received after getting the award, sometimes the praise made him uncomfortable. Likewise, years later he’s unlikely to bring up the award unless asked about it.
“It’s really more of a reflection of every person that worked with me at The Post-Standard,” Kirst said. “It really wasn’t about me winning it, but it’s nice to think about what it means. My Dad was in the Pacific (World War II), and what Ernie Pyle did was so important to him. It meant so much to my father.”
But, Kirst cautions, “The more you think about an award and yourself, the more the quality of your work can go downhill.”
Kirst endured a new era of journalism that saw more attention focused on short stories and videos for the website and less attention on longer pieces for the daily newspaper. There were multiple staff reduction initiatives at the paper, including two buyouts and a massive layoff.
Kirst wrote his last column for The Post-Standard in October 2015, resigning to spend more time with his wife and grown children. Son Liam and daughter Sarah work and live locally, while son Seamus, who is also a writer, lives in Brooklyn.
The Post-Standard was not Kirst’s last stop in his writing career. He hooked up with Syracuse University, which employs him as a contract writer, and he also began contributing columns to The Buffalo News. In addition, Kirst has written three books — “Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd,” “The Ashes of Lou Gehrig and Other Baseball Essays,” and his latest, “The Soul of Central New York,” which includes a collection of his columns from The Post-Standard. He says the book is a tribute to the newspaper’s readers, the countless people he enjoyed working with and the wonderful times he’s had in the Syracuse area.
The answer to a question he’s been asked so many times during his career — Why do you care about Syracuse so much? — is answered in the book.
‘Very lucky here’
“I’ve felt very lucky here,” says Kirst, who has always lived in the city since he relocated to Central New York. “There are strong neighborhoods, diversity, and a sense of community. It’s just a community full of great stories.”
As much as he loves the Salt City, Kirst could not turn down the chance to return to his native Western New York for a job he once only dreamed about. In May, he was hired by The Buffalo News full-time to work as its metropolitan columnist. For now, he stays in a studio apartment in Buffalo during the week, returning to Syracuse to spend time with his family on the weekends. Nora Kirst is not yet eligible for retirement. They plan to consider a move at a later date.
“I now have a foot in two communities I deeply love — the two communities that have shaped who I am,” Kirst said. “That is not a problem. It is a gift.”
Weidner, the editor who Kirst worked for in his early days at The Post-Standard, is a long time running buddy of Kirst’s. They ran often for a number of years, scaled it back some when their kids were growing up, and recently got back into it more. Weidner says running the Syracuse Mountain Goat footrace is one of Kirst’s most beloved past times.
“He loved it because it’s Syracuse,” Weidner said, recalling when Kirst was able to push him to break his targeted 90-minute time, which the editor then did not think was possible. They crossed the finish line together. “It’s not as sexy as the Boilermaker, but that doesn’t matter to him. He likes the hills and the terrain and the grittiness. It’s so Sean. It comes through in everything he does.”
Lately, Kirst has been working out with five-mile runs, setting his sights on returning to “10-mile shape.” He approaches writing and his latest venture with a similar attitude. He had about 10 book ideas, but he would have liked to have at least 100 more. The passion is just as strong now as it was when Kirst was living in Dunkirk and helping out The Evening Observer.
“Since I’ve managed to catch a breath,” Kirst says, “I really understand the importance of storytelling. I think it’s more important to tell stories that matter to the community. In one way or another, I’ll always keep doing it.”
Name: Sean Kirst
Hometown: Dunkirk, NY
Residence: Syracuse (weekends) Buffalo (weekdays)
Family: Wife, Nora. Grown children: Sarah, Liam and Seamus
Current Job: Metropolitan columnist with The Buffalo News
Awards: Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing, Syracuse Press Club Wall of Distinction honoree, several Associated Press awards
Hobbies: Reading, running, walking his dogs, listening to rock music, spending time at public markets, following sports, especially Buffalo and Syracuse teams
Did you know: Kirst attempted to quit drinking coffee about 10 years ago. “It lasted about a week,” he said
On healthy living: Even though he is a sucker for Buffalo wings that remind him of home, Kirst gave up red meat in 1982. He cut out alcohol 12 years ago. He never smoked, and prefers whole foods and the best locally grown produce available. His parents and grandparents died fairly young, so he feels he needs to make a strong effort to combat genes that would otherwise leave him vulnerable to health problems
“We’ve [Kirsts] had several generations who didn’t know their grandparents,” he said. “I want to change that”
On the future of print journalism:
“I’ve got to believe there’s a future,” he said. “We’re going through a very different moment, but I have hope. Hey, people still listen to the Beatles, right? Maybe not with records, though. The form of storytelling is changing. People will still laugh, cry and mourn tomorrow.”