Herbie Wirth

W HEN THE minister left his church that February morning in 1971, he had expected he’d see few mourners gathered at the grave of Herbert A. Wirth.

It was a windy, bleak day—below freezing and snow was beginning to fall. The services over the body would be brief, ----- probably almost perfunctory.

Two days earlier, a mortuary executive had telephoned the minister, explaining that Wirth had no family ----and that his body was unclaimed,---- and asking him to perform the burial rites. The minister never refused such requests, even when, as in this case, he could say virtually nothing in a eulogy. Wirth hadn’t been a member of his church, or indeed of any church. The minister knew only that the old man had peddled household sundries from door to door in Indianapolis’s North-side area. The minister’s wife had bought dishcloths from him, and he vaguely remembered having seen Wirth: “A small man, his gray hair carefully combed, never pushy, always polite. He never had anything in particular we wanted to buy, but we always bought.”    Who would come to the funeral of such a man?

Alone in the Crowd. Herbert Wirth didn’t feel he was really important to anyone in this world. He was 73 years old, slightly more than five feet tall, a bird of a man who looked as if he weighed not more than 100 pounds. He had no family; no friends exchanged visits with him; he lived alone in a neat, white frame house left to him by his mother, who’d died in 1957. Off and on for 27 years, and at least six days a week for the last 11 years of his life, Herbie—very few people knew his last name—was on the streets. He carried two large shopping bags filled with wash-cloths, dish-cloths, potholders, pot scrapers, bandannas and shoelaces. Each item cost 25 cents, except for fancy, hand-woven potholders made by a teenage girl on his street. He sold these for her at 50 cents apiece and refused to take a commission. “I can’t buy these pretty potholders from my supplier,” he told her. “And it’s a

service to my customers for me to have them.”

Each morning he left his house at about 8:30 and set off on a carefully planned route that would bring him home in eight or nine hours. He didn’t think of himself as a peddler. “I’m a salesman,” he’d explain to customers, “and I use psych-ology in my work. I carry only the best quality goods. I work out my routes so that I visit each house exactly three times a year. That way I don’t make a nuisance of myself. I’m polite. Whether or not you buy from me, my ‘thank you’ is the same. I want people to think of me as a nice person.” After offering, “Potholders today?

A nice red bandanna for your little boy?” in a high-pitched voice, Herbie always hoped to linger and chat for a while. It was the way he eased his loneliness. He reminisced about his mother, to whom he had been very close. Every Sunday during the warm months, he visited Crown Hill Cemetery and adorned her grave with a bouquet. The double headstone contained room for his name and dates. In March 1968, he had picked out a gray casket for himself and prepaid his funeral expenses, which came to $749.26.

Herbie nurtured a regret that most of his customers heard several times: “I should have gotten married when I was young. It’s a lonely life without a family. I have nobody.” He made his statement as a fact, not as a request for pity. And the house-wife, eager to get back to her chores, yet touched by the poignancy of Herbie’s reflection, would say, “That’s not so, Herbie! You have lots of friends.” “Well, I do run into a lot of people in my work,” he’d reply. Then he’d pick up his shopping bags and, with quick steps that were half shuffle, half jog, hurry to the next house. Whether it was summer, and the heat made his brow glisten, or winter, when the cold made his eyes water and his nose run, the thin, .stooped figure never altered his pace. While it was never his intention, Herbie sometimes was a nuisance. More than one too-busy housewife had seen him trotting up the walk and decided not to answer his knock. But most women who did so felt guilty and usually compensated by overbuying on his next visit.

Everybody liked his pride, self-respect and independence. He earned his living the hard way, asking for nothing—except perhaps a glass of water on a hot day. And he never peddled his wares to the houses close to his own. “I’m your neighbor,” he explained to women who offered to buy from him. “And I want you to know me as a neighbor, not as a salesman at your door.” He raked leaves and shoveled snow for some of his customers, and in this tiring work, too, he did his best. “I may be a little slow, but I do a good job,” he said proudly.

“Is That Our Herbie?” Late each afternoon, his rounds completed, Herbie stopped at the service station a block and a half from his home. Here he converted his pocketfuls of change into bills and sat around the office for a while, chewing the fat and frequently eating a quart of vanilla ice cream. “I don’t smoke or drink,” he often announced. “But I vanilla ice cream that’s my vice. At home, he made his dinner—usually canned salmon, canned vegetables and bread thickly coated with peanut butter. Then he meticulously cleaned the house, did his laundry and shined his shoes while listening to classical music on the radio. Every Saturday morning, he walked 18 blocks to a supermarket that carried his favorite bread. He arrived a few minutes before it was stacked on the shelves. After he had bought his week’s supply and taken it home, he resumed work.

On January 30, Herbie shoveled snow off a few driveways, then appeared at the supermarket at his usual time. While waiting for the bread delivery, he wordlessly collapsed and died. That day, a few of Herbie’s neighbors learned of his death. Most of them took a long pause in whatever they were doing when they heard the news. No one had ever known him to be sick. It was hard to believe that the wizened, scurrying little man, his shoulders growing more stooped with the years, would never again be seen on the streets. Two days later, Herbert Wirth’s name appeared in the newspaper notices of scheduled funerals. Several of his customers called one another to ask, “Is that our Herbie?”

“I’ll Be There.” The wife of an attorney telephoned a mortuary and asked, “How do you handle the funeral of a person who has no family or friends?”  “Well, we get a minister to say prayers,” was the reply. “Two or three of us accompany the casket to the cemetery and attend the services. We just do the best we can. How terrible that Herbie won’t have anyone he knows at his funeral! the woman thought. Well, he will. I’ll be there. The same thought was crystallizing in the minds of others who had known Herbie. A widow told her next-door neighbor, “An awful thing has happened! Herbie died.” The neighbor said, “I was thinking about him yesterday. I’ve been waiting to buy dishcloths from him.” “He has nobody she said.” Then began to cry. ““Nobody. You and I have to go.”

On the day before the funeral, a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, who had once interviewed Herbie Wirth about his life as a peddler, wrote an obituary in which he mentioned that Herbie had told him of a fear that no one would attend his funeral. For most of Herbie’s customers, this was the first news of his death. That night, adults and teenagers all around the neighborhood talked and thought about Herbie. His loneliness connected, suddenly, with the loneliness each had felt at one time or another. They were moved by his anxiety that no one would bid him a last good-bye, and many resolved to attend the funeral, even if it meant being there alone.

An automobile dealer, who a short time previously had suffered a heart attack, remembered the day his car got stuck in the snow on his driveway. Doctor’s orders forbade him to shovel. Suddenly, Herbie appeared and cleared away the snow. The dealer told his wife, “I’m going to Herbie’s funeral.” She nodded and said, “I am too.

Old, Young, Rich, Poor. For some people, Herbie’s funeral was a private personal obligation. It wasn’t talked about. Husbands left for work at the normal hour—and were surprised to meet their wives at the cemetery. High school and college students cut classes—and unexpectedly found themselves nodding greetings to their parents. Old and young, rich and poor, black and white, they began converging on the cemetery at nine o’clock, an hour before the scheduled services. Mink coats mingled with bell-bottom trousers and worn cloth coats. Servicemen in uniform and businessmen in dark suits strode across the sprawling 540-acre Crown Hill Cemetery toward the grave. Elderly people, some with canes, wearily but determinedly trudged along. Truck drivers, cabbies and delivery-men parked outside the cemetery and walked nearly a mile to the grave site. Young mothers carried small children, trying to shield them from the icy wind.

The minister was stopped two blocks from the cemetery by streets jammed with vehicles. He circled toward another entrance. Inside the cemetery, employees were directing the traffic, which was choking the narrow roadways. The puzzled minister tried to recall what well-known figure was being buried that day. He parked and then, as he walked toward the grave, he realized that all these people must be coming to attend the funeral of Herbert Wirth. He was stunned. Crown Hill Cemetery wasn’t prepared for such a crowd. “Our entire staff was out, trying to the situation, but it couldn’t,” the director said later. “There must have been 600 cars. Nobody knows how many more were parked farther away, or how many cars couldn’t get near the cemetery and left.”

A New Respect. Robert C. Braun, executive director of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, had also remembered Herbie and decided to attend the funeral in case nobody else did. Now, like others, he was astonished at the hundreds of people moving toward the grave. Then he recalled that the old cemetery bell, hanging five stories high in the tower above the cemetery’s historic waiting station, had just been re-roped. The bell had probably not been rung in more than 40 years. Walking to the bell rope, he began pulling on it, sending out clear, measured rings that could be heard for two miles. He tolled for a half-hour, wearing blisters on his hands. Then he sounded the death knell: single rings separated by long, mournful


At 10:30, as the snow fell, the minister gazed around him at a crowd of more than 1000. He caught “a glow from those people—they wanted to be with Herbie Wirth.” He began a brief, deeply felt eulogy in which he said, “Herbert Wirth never dreamed he had so many friends. In this cold and sometimes uncaring world, surely God must be pleased today.” When the prayers were completed, the crowd lingered on. A sense of camaraderie was tying strangers together. Some people were exhilarated. Some experienced a deep satisfaction. Everybody felt good about being there, and nobody was in a hurry to leave the scene that made them feel good.

“Herbie created a mood that day,” a businessman reflected later. “He gave me a new respect for human beings.”

Herbie Wirth had always paid his own way in life. He asked only that a few people appear at his funeral. What he gave for this favor far exceeded what he asked for.

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