Henry G. G. Hirsch, 97, city teacher, mentor for 40 years


Henry Grover George Hirsch, whose many students during a more than four-decade career teaching in Baltimore public schools included a future vice president of the United States, died of pneumonia Sunday at Glen Meadows retirement community in Glen Arm. He was 97.

Mr. Hirsch, who was born in Philadelphia to immigrant parents from Hungary and Germany, was an infant when he settled with his family in West Baltimore in 1909.

He was a 1928 graduate of City College and earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the Johns Hopkins University in 1932.

It was Mr. Hirsch's dream to become a physician, but even though he had completed the coursework for a medical degree at Hopkins, the harsh realities of the Depression forced him to abandon his dream.

He worked three jobs to support his growing family and to pay off the $6,500 mortgage on his home on Clover Hill Road in Catonsville, where he lived for 48 years until moving to the retirement community in 1988.

"He even took a job scrubbing rugs and managed to pay off the mortgage in five years," said a son, Dr. Thomas J. Hirsch of Madison, Wis., a physician and vice president of medical affairs of Dean Health Plan.

Mr. Hirsch turned his energies to teaching and began his career at his high school alma mater. He later taught at Polytechnic Institute before joining the faculty of Forest Park High School in the 1930s.

While teaching thousands of students biology, chemistry, physics and zoology during his more than 30-year career at Forest Park, Mr. Hirsch also became an influence on and a lifelong friend to many of them.

"My father's students were everywhere in Baltimore," said a son, Robert G. Hirsch, a retired DuPont Co. executive, of Rockland, Maine.

"I have extremely fond memories of him, and he sort of became a father figure to me. I was a German refugee who was sent to Baltimore in 1937, and I was all alone," said Arnold A. Reiling, a retired Amalie Oil Co. salesman who lives in Pikesville.

"I had a few language problems, and Mr. Hirsch looked after me. He was always asking if I had any problems, and if I did, I was to come to him," Mr. Reiling said.

Mr. Reiling described him as a "very popular teacher" because he was "young and not set in his ways."

Another German refugee who attended Forest Park was Henry Silbermann, a native of Koblenz.

"I was able to get out of Germany in 1937 before the Nazis closed the borders and was sent to a family in Baltimore," Mr. Silbermann recalled the other day.

"I had a very poor understanding of English, but more than any other teacher, Mr. Hirsch recognized that. He spoke German and told me if I had any problems, he was here to help me," he said.

"Here I was, a boy of 14, thrown into a strange land, and here were Americans, like Mr. Hirsch, who went out of their way to help the lonely and downtrodden," he said.

One of his celebrated students was Spiro T. Agnew, who later became Baltimore County executive, Maryland governor, and President Richard M. Nixon's vice president.

"My father was so relieved that Spiro Agnew fell from the vice presidency on a corruption charge rather than in a sex scandal that somehow could have reflected on his high school biology teacher," said Robert Hirsch, laughing.

He was science department head at his 1969 retirement.

In 1950, Mr. Hirsch received a Fulbright Award as an exchange teacher and was sent to Teignmouth School in Devon, England, with his family, where he taught science. Also, during his yearlong stay, he introduced his students to basketball and was invited to Buckingham Palace to be presented to the queen mother.

During summer breaks, Mr. Hirsch, who had attained registered guide status, worked for Travel Guide. Fluent also in French and Italian, he escorted groups of teachers on tours of European countries, while providing detailed lectures on art, culture, history and architecture.

He was in his 80s when he led his last tour, said family members.

"He was something. He was very patient with his students and couldn't have been more effective," said Bob Scott, a 1948 Forest Park graduate who later became lacrosse coach and athletic director at Hopkins.

"He loved attending and speaking at reunions and came to our 50th. His speech was full of humor, and he had us all in stitches," Mr. Scott said.

A funeral Mass was offered Wednesday at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Hydes.

Also surviving are his wife of 69 years, the former Teresa Potthast, whose father was a founder in 1892 of Potthast Brothers Inc., the venerable Baltimore furniture maker; another son, Richard H. Hirsch of River Edge, N.J., a retired communications executive; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.


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