Irwin Gonshak Remembered

Irwin Gonshak Remembered

Irwin was born April 3, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish Jewish immigrant parents who came to America in search of a better life. His father began by pushing a hot-dog stand on the Lower East Side, and, when he retired in middle age, was the owner of two New York clothing stores.

In 1943, Irwin graduated at sixteen from Jamaica High School in Queens. He enrolled in the School of Agriculture at Cornell University, but left Cornell at seventeen to enlist in the Navy. When World War II ended, he was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Station, and was assigned to a troop ship carrying soldiers home from the Far East.

During his stint in the Navy, Irwin came across a book which changed his life: Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book, about how ordinary readers could enjoy and appreciate the classics of Western literature-works intended, Adler argued, primarily for this very audience. How to Read a Book set Irwin on a course, carried out through his many years in educational radio, as an impassioned popularizer-a writer/producer dedicated to bringing art and learning to the masses.

After leaving the military, Irwin enrolled in the Liberal Arts program at Adelphi University-part of a wave of post-war GI's whose education was funded by the GI Bill. Intent on becoming a writer, he wrote for the college literary magazine and newspaper, for the latter penning a popular weekly column called "Under the Sun," for which he won a Newspaper Guild Collegiate Press Award. He graduated with a BA from Adelphi in 1949, and earned an MA at Teachers College, Columbia University, which qualified him to become a social studies teacher in the New York City public schools-a post he always referred to as "my day job." In that capacity, he was appointed chapter chairman for his school's teacher's union, becoming active in the successful effort to have the union recognized by the city, an experience which inspired a life-long commitment to the rights of working people. He also participated in the Civil Rights movement, and supported liberal causes all his life.

On August 12, 1953, Irwin married Avis Cousin. When they met at a dance, their first discussion was about politics; Avis favored Harry Truman in the upcoming presidential race, while Irwin preferred the candidate who flanked Truman to the left: Henry Wallace. Both of them, however, adored Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Irwin's assistance enabled Avis to attend college, and she graduated from Pratt College with a degree in fine arts. Their marriage produced two children, Henry and Lucretia, and four grandchildren, Hannah and Rebecca Gonshak, and Sean and Jake Ryan. Today, Henry is an English professor at Montana Tech in Butte, while Lucretia is a sales executive at IBM. Irwin was actively involved in the raising of his children–glorying in their successes, aiding them in all their endeavors, and always around to help when mishaps occurred.

While teaching junior high school, Irwin began writing radio scripts for a Jewish program on NBC, "The Eternal Light." He went on to write 41 scripts for the series, which were broadcast live across the country. One of the shows, "A World Dialogue," won a Canadian Media Award in 1960. When the New York City Board of Education learned of Irwin's radio programs, they transferred him to their radio station, WNYE-FM, to work as a script supervisor. He ended up writing hundreds of educational radio dramas for WNYE, which were heard in public school classrooms around the city, and which received many grants and national media awards. His two recurrent characters were May Z. Wink, an "armchair detective," and Johnny Nickel (modeled on the old radio drama he'd listened to as a boy, "Johnny Dollar"), both of whom investigated mysteries whose solution invariably provided edifying information. His children often acted on his radio programs. On his blog for the Adelphi University alumni website, Irwin called his many years at WNYE "the best job in the whole school system."

After retiring, Irwin went on to work as a radio producer for Teachers and Writers Collaborative in Manhattan. He produced two radio series, "Everything Goes?" and "Teacher as Historian," a program on American history coordinated with the Library of America. The former show, which broadcast creative writing by New Yorkers, was discussed in a January 28, 2001 article by Andrea Higbie, appearing in the Arts Section of The New York Times, titled, "Television/Radio; A Friendly Ear for Any and All New York Writers". Higbie described "Everything Goes?" as a "stubbornly quirky radio show special…that champions writers who are unpublished, and often unpublishable," along with best-selling writers like Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) and Lawrence Block, as well as the then-unknown Terry McMillan. The show, Higbie concluded, "is a perfect example of radio's potential to be a democratic medium."

The program's contributors deeply appreciated the platform the show afforded their work. After Irwin's death, one of them, Eric Oran, wrote in a condolence letter to the Gonshak family: "Although I met Irwin only a handful of times, I consider him to be one of my best friends, if by friend you mean someone who appreciates in you what you like in yourself, who brings out the best in you and effects positive change in your life. Irwin was someone who really helped me. I cannot think of anyone who has helped me as much." Another, Robert Hagen, wrote, "Irwin's gift was that he made everyone he came in contact with feel better about themselves. And that's not an easy task because as writers go, we're generally a miserable, insecure lot. But…he always made me feel like I was somebody and what I said mattered. I believe he made everyone feel like that….I mean, if Irwin believes in me, then maybe I'm OK? Maybe I'll try writing something else?"

Irwin remained a proud and active member of the Writers Guild East for 49 years. As a Guild member, he founded the Short Radio Drama Committee, dedicated to returning to the airwaves the radio dramas he had relished as a child. Irwin's quest on behalf of radio drama was discussed in an article in The Wall Street Journal. As part of this endeavor, before he died he was in the process of organizing a series with the Writers Guild called "College/School Radio Drama Festival…Coast to Coast," which would broadcast short radio dramas written, produced and acted out by college students. He also provided guidance and encouragement to a recent Guild mentoring program that taught underserved children to write and record radio drama. Irwin delighted the students-and the Guild volunteers-by broadcasting their completed radio drama "NYPD Shampoo: Haircuts and Handcuffs" multiple times on WNYE's "Everything Goes?"

Irwin Gonshak–writer, teacher, mentor, colleague, friend, husband, father, and kind, generous man dedicated to making the world a little better place-perhaps best inspired us all with this optimistic motto: "Stay tuned!"

This tribute was written by Henry Gonshak, Irwin's son. The family has asked that Guild members wishing to express their sympathies, send a note to Avis Gonshak, Irwin's wife of 54 years, at 6724 169 Street, Flushing, New York 11365. A memorial service, tentatively planned for mid March, will be announced on the Guild's website.