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Kentucky by Heart: Recalling radio and television personality, and Kentucky native, Durward Kirby

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Hey, old-timers (like me). Do you remember the name “Durward Kirby”? Let me see if I can jog your memory…

When I could find time away from the chores and tobacco farming of my family’s small farm while a child, I watched a lot of television shows. It was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and you might call it the period of the ‘Dark Ages’ of TV. Viewers watched mostly black and white videos on our screens, and for the Flairty household, we had three channels, plus a faint, fuzzy view of another. That was fine, as cable television, with its hundreds of viewing choices, would come decades later and was probably not even imagined at the time by most.

I recall seeing parts of The Garry Moore Show, a TV variety program decidedly not created for a child audience. A tall, mild-mannered man was a regular on the show, and though I couldn’t necessarily pronounce or spell it, I became familiar with his name, mentioned regularly… Durward Kirby. Later, starting in the early ‘60s, the same name and face popped up as a sidekick for Allen Funt on the long-running funny show (even for kids), Candid Camera. And though Durward never seemed to be the type that overtook the room with his charismatic personality, he seemed to be a screen fixture and, for all I could fathom as a child, a genuine “famous” person.

Fast forward to today, and I found that Sir Durward, who died in 2000 at age 88, was a Kentuckian. At least, he lived his early years in the Northern Kentucky area and was, for a time, a nationally known announcer on Cincinnati’s WLW radio station who won recognition for the catastrophic flooding of 1937. Born in 1911 at 1815 Greenup Street, in Covington, Homer Durward Kirby was the son of a train dispatcher and homemaker mother. He attended St. Benedict School, but when his family moved to Ft. Thomas, he attended St. Thomas and then Highlands High School. The family moved to Indianapolis after his sophomore year.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

While at WLW after some radio experience at Purdue University, he also hosted big-band broadcasts in the area, including at the Lookout House, a place where I attended a prom back in the last century (but long after Durward was there!). His career then ascended when he moved to a bigger gig as an NBC broadcaster in Chicago where he became associated with Garry Moore. And like many at the time, he had his career interrupted while serving in World War II. After his military stint, he became a key part on the Garry Moore Show, stretching from the 1950s into the ‘60s. Noteworthy is that Durward also worked with upcoming superstar Carol Burnett on Moore’s program. He also gained acclaim announcing for the Goodyear TV Playhouse.

Durward’s name became even more recognizable when he joined the popular Candid Camera, leading to high-profile and national announcing advertisement jobs. In 1982, he was honored as “Outstanding Spokesman” for the Cincinnati-based Proctor & Gamble Company and honored locally by his election to the Greater Cincinnati Broadcast Hall of Fame in 1991.

An interesting tidbit about his influence in entertainment programming showed up in an event involving another series, according to an entry in The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky. “Kirby’s television fame was spoofed in the 1960s popular Rocky and Bullwinkle television cartoon series with a story about the search for the stolen ‘Kirward Derby,’ a hat that would make its wearer the smartest man in the world.”

Retired Broadway and TV actor Eric F. James, of Danville, offered this anecdote about working with the star. “I performed in a summer stock tour of New England with Durward in the late 1960s. He was on summer hiatus from the Garry Moore Show. While rehearsing in New York City, he hosted a dinner for the cast at his sprawling apartment overlooking Central Park. When on tour, he hosted us again, swimming and relaxing at his summer home in Connecticut. Among all the stars of stage, screen, and television I worked, Durward was one of the warmest, the most gracious, and most supportive of young talent.”

In 1992, Durward published his autobiography, My Life… Those Wonderful Years. For sure, he brought joy to many in those years, starting back in Covington on Greenup Street.

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