Thomas R. Keating · 1995
To know Tom Keating, you need to know a little about a dishrag and wash cloth salesman named Herbie Wirth. That’s the kind of person Keating liked to tell his readers about.
If you read Keating’s daily column in The Indianapolis Star, you may recall that Keating wrote several times about Herbie Wirth.
• “If you have lived between 16th Street and Broad Ripple in the last 25 years, you probably have seen him a dozen times and likely bought his goods. “He is a little fellow, slightly stooped. He walks with a shuffle and always carries two shopping bags. And he always smiles. ”His name is Herbert Wirth. Most people call him Herbie. He is 72 and has made his living since 1944 selling dishrags and wash cloths door-to-door. ”He has never owned a car. He calculates he has walked more than 50,000 miles since he began his selling career at age 57 after losing his job at a dry goods company. ”He works 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week and doesn’t stop for lunch…. ”‘I use psychology in my work, (Wirth says.) There is a great art to selling. I try not to make a pest of myself. If people want my products, fine. If not, I thank them and be on my way. I don’t want them to buy anything they can’t use just because they feel sorry for me. ”‘I know that selling dishrags is not the most important job in the world. I sometimes have envied men who are doing exciting and glamorous things. ”‘There won’t be much of a dent in the world when I die, but at least I can say I made an honest-to-God try to do what I did as a nice man.'”
A couple of years later, Keating wrote:
• “Saturday, Herbert Wirth died of a heart attack in a Northside supermarket. there was some concern for awhile because no relatives could be found to handle the funeral arrangements. “But Herbie had known that this would be the case and on March 5, 1968, he had paid cash to Flanner and Buchanan Mortuaries for a complete funeral and burial. ”He requested that there be no service in the funeral home nor in a church. All he wanted was a graveside service. ”And that some people be there. ”The service will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the grave in Crown Hill Cemetery. A minister is meeting those who plan to attend the service shortly before 10 a.m. at the cemetery gate at 34th Street and Boulevard Place. ”It would be a shame if no one showed up.”
And the next day, Keating wrote:
• “Something kind of strange and warm and you might even say wonderful happened in Indianapolis yesterday. “More than 1,000 persons showed up for the funeral of a 73-year-old man who sold dishrags door to door…. ”His name was Herbie Wirth and he said a couple of years ago that he didn’t want to be buried without someone there to say a prayer or two for him. ”A newspaper story Tuesday mentioned this wish and everyone thought maybe 10 or 20 or even 30 people might show up for the graveside services…. ”But shortly before 10 a.m., a huge bell in the cemetery gate tower began ringing for the first time in more than 40 years and when the services started there were more people present than have attended a graveside funeral in this city in possibly 20 years, according to cemetery officials. ”The people who were there were white and black, old and young, rich and poor. ”They were soldiers in uniform, flower children with long flowing hair, businessmen in suits and overcoats, women carrying babies, truck drivers, elderly people who had to be helped up the icy hill to the grave and teen-agers cutting school. ”Wives and husbands who hadn’t told each other of their plans met unexpectedly at the grave….
“Why did so many come?
“Well, you think it might have something to do with the almost universal fear of being alone, of having no one. You think it might also be because Herbie was well-liked and the simplicity of his life was what was being honored.
“But when a thousand people stand in freezing weather to pay homage to a little man who was neither rich nor famous, you have to think above all that it is simply because a lot of people so care about others.”
“Someone brought a large guest book to the grave and most of the people present signed it before leaving.”
“Because Herbie had no relatives, the book was placed in the casket with him.
“It was a very full book.”
Now you know not only Herbie Wirth, but you know Tom Keating.
Five days a week for 14 years, Keating wrote a column for The Star – 3,500 columns in all. And while he sometimes wrote about the rich and powerful, his column more often was about someone like Herbie Wirth.
Former Star Managing Editor Lawrence “Bo” Connor explains Keating’s approach to column writing: “Tom never forgot his roots. He liked to write about policemen and firemen, athletes and coaches, politicians, judges, governors, clerks, housewives and laborers, now and then a bank president or a businessman. No phonies allowed, though.”
Keating’s roots were in Indianapolis, where he grew up a mile and a half north of Monument Circle. He graduated from Cathedral High School and attended both Ball State and Indiana universities. He sold real estate and managed apartments before he joined The Star in 1966 as a police reporter. He started writing his daily column in 1971.
There was no mystery to finding topics for most of his columns, Keating once said. “I just try to find a feature story every day…. Everyone in this world has done something in his or her past which is memorable enough that it will be of interest to thousands of readers in Central Indiana.”
And, of course, it was. Connor says Keating’s column was “without question the best read feature in the paper.” Also well read was a 1982 book collection of his columns, “Indiana Faces and Other Places.”
Connor and others now oversee an annual college feature writing competition that bears Keating’s name. The competition is open to all undergraduate college students in Indiana and offers students a chance to win at least $1,500 in cash prizes.
A description of the entry requirements for that competition reads like a description of Keating’s columns: “The feature must be factual and original. Writing caliber is considered more important than the subject matter. Judges look for evidence of background and enterprise reporting, with the best elements of creative feature writing – the feature lead, development and closing.”
The competition is sponsored by the Indiana University School of Journalism at IUPUI, by the Indianapolis Press Club and by the University of Indianapolis.
Keating died in the summer of 1985, about eight months after leaving The Star to become director of communications for Lilly Endowment Inc.
Now, remember the line Keating wrote about the guest book they put in Herbie Wirth’s casket? He wrote, “It was a very full book.”
Connor writes a similar line about Keating. “He was just 45. But it certainly was a full 45 years.”
Keating is survived by his widow, Gloria; one daughter, Kerry; and three sons, Shawn Patrick, Matthew and Kiernan.