Biography of a Hunch
Revival under Jim Hirsch
"If the School had to hire a director now, they'd never hire someone like me," Jim often said during his tenure as director. A guitar instructor since 1972 and director of the School's Evanston branch since 1978, JIm dropped out of Southern Illinois University before completing its first-ever degree in acoustic music. No fancy arts administration diploma, no nonprofit management experience outside the School. But he did have ideas for turning the School around, and he was fiercely committed to its survival.
"Jim Hirsch was the only one as far as I was concerned who met the criteria," Kenton Morris states flatly. Perhaps beacuse, as a 1982 Tribune article put it, "In four years of heading the School's Evanston branch, he brought it out of the financial red into self-suficiency."
Jim became director in May 1982. "I remember one day real clearly, just sitting at my desk and feeling so overwhelmed by the hundreds of things that needed to be done instantly that I was almost incapable of doing anything," he remembers, recalling how he pored over financial reports and slowly realized exactly what a mess the School was in. "The first year felt like it went on forever - we were putting in a lot of hours, and things were really tense."
As a first step toward solvency, the board sold the neighboring building at 907 W. Armitage to pay some debts and replenish operating funds. The Jim started to work with the board to cut costs - by eliminating staff positions, dividing responsibilities among the remaining staff, and slashing operating expenses to the absolute minimum.
"I didn't draw a salary for the first month I was here," Jim says. "And long-term plans? We couldn't make any long-term plans, we were just trying to make payroll."
Next step: bring in more money. The School had always received income through tuition and concerts, so Jim sought to increase class enrollment by offering specialty classes such as songwriting, harmonica, and children's lessons - meanwhile reaching out to the musicians who had left the School during the crisis. Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger's 1982 sold-out performance got the concert series back on track. And as he had done in Evanston, Jim rented out space in the School's building. But he also wanted to try something completely unknown to the School: organized corporate, foundation, and individual fundraising.
"Fundraising was probably one of the only areas where quick fixes like this organization needed were available," Jim explains. Other staff members started to write proposals, then Jim took it over himself in early 1983. "It was hard," he recalls, "You don't just walk into people's offices the first day and achieve success, so we got turned down a number of times." Board member Susan Church, a fundraising professional, guided Jim's efforts, and "within a couple of years we went from raising $4,000-$5,000 a year to raising over $100,000 a year."
Can someone make the transition from musician to administrator? Michael Miles, longtime teacher and former program director, proposed this theory: "Most everybody knew Jim for his guitar playing, for being one of the finest finger-pickers in the Midwest. And what he was known for as a guitarist was his incredible precision.... I would see him seated for hours on end at his typewriter, banging out letters of thanks and proposals. His office was piled with stuff - piles of music, piles of grant applications, cassette tapes, a couple of guitars, and his collection of miniature wind-up toys.... I watched him alone in his office day after day, driven by the same sense of precision and an unparalleled devotion to the School as he fought for its survival and success. And all the while he set a tone for the School that helped make it a fun place and the 'home of folk music' that he wanted it to be."
Biography of a Hunch
These moments in Old Town School history are reprinted from Biography of a Hunch: The History of Chicago's Legendary Old Town School of Folk Music, written by Lisa Grayson.