Celebration of Life for George Shirk, Feb. 4, Canyon Lodge

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

There will be a celebration of life for George Shirk, former Mammoth Times editor and reporter and longtime newsman for many national publications, this Saturday, Feb. 4 at 5 p.m. at the Grizzly Theater at Canyon Lodge. All who knew and loved George are invited. Bring your best stories about George, and be ready to share them. The more the merrier! Light appetizers will be served.

Shirk died Thursday, Dec. 8 in Bakersfield after a heart attack.

He was 64 years old.

Shirk was best known around Mammoth as the founder of Mammoth Monthly magazine, an award-winning publication he started in 2002 with his then-wife Jean Shirk, and for his work at the Times.

He loved Mammoth with a deep and abiding love but his life in Mammoth was only part of a rich and accomplished professional life rooted in places far from Mammoth.

He was a reporter for the Des Moines Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a primary emphasis on his lifelong passion for sports, specifically for the Iowa Hawkeyes, NBA basketball, and the Golden State Warriors.

He was one of two journalists who started SFGate.com, one of the news business’s first forays into the digital age. He had a Twitter account before most people knew what Twitter was.

After starting SFGate.com, he became editor-in-chief of Wired.com, and later, when he moved to Mammoth in 2002, he became the founder and editor of Mammoth Monthly, a quirky, literate, lifestyle magazine that went on to be nominated for the prestigious MAGGIE magazine awards.

During his years in Iowa and at newspapers and the Mammoth Monthly, he taught generations of reporters how to write.

“That’s just reporting,” he would say. “Now, what’s the STORY?”

George Shirk moved back to his other home in Oakland after the Recession crashed Mammoth’s economy but in 2010, he showed up in the Mammoth Times newsroom, looking for a friend.

At the time, the Times was recruiting for a reporter, and although he wasn’t looking for a job, he was hired on the spot.

When he died last week, he was still working for the Times as a freelance news writer.

“You just can’t have more fun than putting out a newspaper,” he used to say.

Shirk was born on June 3, 1952 in Oelwein, Iowa, one of two identical twins who would later be called by teachers and parents the “terrible Shirk boys.”

Shirk and his twin, Rob, were inseparable even when they lived a thousand miles apart, and when Rob died of leukemia in 2009, the wound never fully healed.

Shirk is survived by his daughter, Kate Gandee of Delaware, Ohio; his son, Richard Shirk, of Oakland; his former wife, Jean Shirk, of Oakland; his sister, Susan Hopkins, of Lexington, Kentucky; his second wife, Dr. Becky Graham; grandchildren Matthew, Jonathan, and Patrick Gandee; nephew Riley George Shirk; niece Mary Miracle; and stepbrother John McEvoy.

Jean Shirk remained a steadfast friend even after their divorce.

“George adored Mammoth,” said Jean. “He knew he lived in one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on Earth, and he appreciated that beauty, from the smallest details to the most dramatic, monster snowstorm, every day. He had a little kid’s sense of wonder about life. His imagination was rich, outrageous, even, and he was always inventing, creating, trying new sports, learning and figuring out new things. I never once saw him say no to an opportunity to try something new, and he was never afraid to learn. And oh, my GOD, he was funny. Silly funny. He always made me laugh. We had a couple lifetimes’ worth of fun together. I didn’t think he was going to die. I am going to miss him every single day.”

Wherever George Shirk went, whatever he did, he made an impression, and Mammoth, and the world, will be a bleaker place without him.

His Mammoth friends, too, know what they will miss.

“I met George Shirk shortly after I came to Mammoth as Police Chief in 2010,” said former Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Dan Watson. “He came to my office for an interview that lasted about an hour. I looked forward to my weekly visit to the Mammoth Times staff meetings where I got the chance to critique their latest edition and catch up on what was happening in town.

“George was an old school newsman, a real throwback to the days before the internet and social media. He captured the spirit of the person being interviewed. There’s often an adversarial relationship and lack of trust between the news media and law enforcement. That didn’t exist with George. He would honor an “off the record” request so long as I agreed to tell him the story when I could. But, I had to be careful around George when in casual, social settings since he also wrote the ‘What’s Up’ column. More than once he caught one of my off-handed comments that I read in the next week’s edition.

“Fido, his chow dog, was George’s constant companion and I’m sure George lost a lot when Fido died a few months ago.

“My mother was terminally ill at the time and I had to find a home for Joey, her big cat. After my mother passed away, I introduced Joey to George and Fido and he became the newest member of the Shirk clan. He thanked me in his own way by renaming Joey ‘Chief’ in the next column.

“George Shirk was one of a kind. Smart, witty, wise, and big hearted. Mammoth Lakes was better for his presence. I am better for his friendship.”

One of Shirk’s favorite things to do during his years at the Times was to shoot the bull with then-editor Aleksandra Gajewski, now Aleksandra Mendel.

“George was a great man, and an even better journalist,” said Mendel. “I don’t think Mammoth ever realized what a gem it had when George was reporting the news. He made every story matter, regardless if it was about the Chihuahua races at the Village or the Town of Mammoth Lakes entering bankruptcy. They don’t make journalists like George Shirk anymore, and it was a great honor to work with him.

“George had the best sense of humor. We laughed at the most inappropriate things. I will miss that. His love for Mammoth was unconditional, which I admired.

“Despite certain struggles in his personal life, he always found solace and comfort in writing, which I also admired.

“He taught me so much, not just about journalism, but about life, and I will be forever grateful to him for that.”

“I’d go over to George’s to see him,” said Deborah Harrigan, George’s friend and companion in Mammoth for the past several years. “Knock, knock. ‘Hallooo! Get in here and tell me the story of your day.’ That was George. Day after day, always inquisitive, selfless and interested. We shared many a moment talking about life, Mammoth goings-on, all the folks he knew and loved, family, Fido and Chief, and of course, skiing and sports! He loved Mammoth Mountain and joyfully discovered June Mountain last year. We enjoyed many a lunch break lap. He was a devoted Iowa Hawkeyes fan. And he’d say: ‘Hey, let’s watch the worst team in baseball tonight, honey.’ When George danced, and he loved to dance, his moves were that of baseball signs, picked up from years of watching the sport.

“George moved and talked slowly. I would be halfway down the corridor waiting patiently for him and Fido to catch up. He taught me to slow down in life and consider my words and actions.

“I could go on forever about the blessings of meeting, learning from and spending time with George Shirk.

“But then, you all know this… he was special, lovable, hilarious. To know him was to love him. I miss you, George.”

“George was one of the first people I was to meet upon moving to Mammoth,” said writer and former Times paginator Alex Garcia. “Prior to even having a place to live, I had lined up an internship at the Times with the intent of learning firsthand how a community newspaper worked. ‘What's the news?’ he would ask me every morning as I walked into the building. Once I learned of George’s background, I would make it a habit to distract him from writing for a little while each morning, and I would pick his brain on all things news, technology, Mammoth, dogs, and of course, snow. We both knew the news industry needed to change and I’m forever grateful for his expert advice and insight.

“I’m so glad I got to know him and I’m fortunate to have been able to call him my friend. I still cannot believe he is gone.”

“The first time I met George, he told me, ‘You look familiar to me,’” said Mono County Supervisor Tim Alpers, who shared a love of basketball with Shirk. “He then claimed he had interviewed me when he worked for the Des Moines Register when I was coaching at Tulsa, at the university, back in the late 70s. I don’t recall that, but knowing George, he was right.

“We then found we shared so many friends. He had a photographic memory for sports trivia. He was so passionate about that part of his life. I’d stop by the Times, or meet him, and every time, time would stand still. We would talk, about sports, about everything, and I would walk away content. He had a huge heart; he had a heart of gold. I’m really going to miss him.”

“George Shirk, the man with the hat,” said Jennifer Crittenden, Times copyeditor. “He used to say that women couldn’t resist a man in a good hat.

“He had that sly sense of humor,” she said. “When a colleague got a Beamer, George wouldn’t back me up that that was a terrible car for Mammoth Lakes.

“He said, ‘I like Beamers. When I’m riding in one, I feel like invading Belgium or something.’

“I always looked forward to him coming into the paper to hear what he thought about things.

“When it was very quiet in the newsroom the morning after the election, George said it felt like the day after 9/11, ‘that kicked-in-the-gut feeling.’

“Later, he said he felt betrayed by the media. ‘And these are my people,’ he said sadly. ‘I’m taking a break from the media for a while. Well, except for sports. But, all these people and everything they’re saying after the election, now I just think, ‘Everyone, just shut up.’”

“Working with George at Mammoth Monthly was my finest, most formal journalism education and deep practice in newspapering, even though it was technically a magazine,” said Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless. “George always asked, ‘What’s the story?’ The story was never simply the thing you were covering, like Town Council, or the fair.

“I do know what he meant by that, and it has to do with getting at the essence of something, and in George’s case, at the essence of this place, Mammoth. He worked at this and never gave up on the story or on Mammoth.

“Chicago had Mike Royko, San Francisco had Herb Caen, and we had George Shirk - and thank goodness we still have him, through all the stories.

“It’s up to us to keep finding new ones to tell, and to do right by this place with our words.”

His son Richard Shirk, who lives in the Bay Area, here, today, gets the last words.

“This is the thing that most stands out to me about my father,” he said. “What I hope to emulate when I finally grow up is this: he was a very curious guy. He would get an idea in his head and then, he would carry it through. He was in his forties and he decided he wanted to learn Spanish. So he did. He decided he wanted to learn to play the jazz clarinet, and he did, and he was pretty good at it. He and Jean decided to start a magazine in Mammoth, and they did, and it was a good magazine. He had a knack for thinking of things and for making them happen. A lot of people can’t do that.

“I admire this too: Everywhere I go, be it in Oakland or to the Vons in Mammoth, I meet my dad’s friends; groundskeepers and writers, he had friends everywhere. He had good friends who sustained him, whom he tested as friends, and they were there for him.

“Fido was a huge part of the legend of George Shirk, through the subsequent fame of ‘Fido and Me.’ When Fido died, my dad never recovered from that (Fido died in September).

“In terms of his profession, he was always forward thinking, he was ahead. I was ten, eleven, and he was telling me what a hyperlink was.

“He was teaching at the University of Iowa when I was going to school there. He would stop by my college radio station; we worked on the same college newspaper. We lived in the same dorm, decades apart. He always wanted to meet my friends; he was interested in everyone and treated them like equals. For better or worse, he did that with me, too. He took me to movies I was probably too young to see, like ‘Apocalypse Now.’ When I was a baby, he’d talk out his newspaper stories to me, plucking me down by his desk.

“He taught me you are never too old to learn something new. Never. I miss him.”

A community celebration of George Shirk’s life will be held Saturday, Feb. 4 at 5 p.m. at Canyon Lodge in the Grizzly Theater. More details will be available at a later date.

For Mammoth/the Eastern Sierra:
• ICARE (Inyo/Mono County Animal Resources and Education):
http://icareforpets.org/index.html (General info)
http://icareforpets.org/MakeaDifference.html (To donate)
P.O. Box 76
Bishop, CA 93515

For the East Bay/Bay Area:
• Friends of Oakland Animal Services (not Oakland Animal Services):
Friends of Oakland Animal Services
P.O. Box 3132
Oakland, CA, 94609

Note: This story originally ran in the Times' print edition of Dec.15, 2016 as well as the E-edition for that date. It has been reprinted here with light edits. WG