Remembering the Winterhawks' John of all trades
As the wandering guy with the mic during radio broadcasts and the first source for technical help in a pinch, for more than three decades John Kirby was a go-to guy for the Portland Winterhawks broadcast team.
But hockey was just one of many interests for Kirby, who died Feb. 13 at age 63.
An accomplished engineer, Kirby worked on development of early GPS systems for Hughes Aircraft, on early microprocessor test systems at Tektronix and on video-over-internet development with Intel.
His free time was filled with a wide range of interests. He was the back-up organist for the Lakers and Kings while living in Los Angeles. He also was an organist for the Portland Beavers baseball team. The Hawks played some of his recorded organ music during their Sunday home game against Seattle.
Kirby also was an avid skydiver. More recently, he was a reserve police officer in Portland — a role he was particularly proud of, according to friend and former broadcast partner Dean Vrooman.
Born in Albany, New York, Kirby attended Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. While earning bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering there, Kirby was active in student radio and television, which broadcast Clarkson hockey games.
Kirby's connection to the Winterhawks goes back to the 1970s, when he helped play-by-play man Cliff Zauner with player interviews, statistics and the technical side of the broadcast. Zauner and Ivan Kafoury owned the radio rights to the Hawks from 1978 until the mid-1980s. Each recalls that Kirby was always around and ready to help.
"He was just a great guy who was there when you needed him," Zauner said, noting that Kirby also helped him with re-creation broadcasts of Beavers road games and with high school broadcasts, including state basketball tournaments.
Kafoury remembers Kirby as "a really great guy" who was fun and useful to have around. For example, Kafoury said, when occasional games were shown on community access cable television, it was Kirby who "had all the knowledge of how to do that."
Vrooman said Kirby was his hockey tutor in summer 1982, after Vrooman was hired to replace Zauner as the team's radio play-by-play voice. Kirby served as Vrooman's color commentator at home games until a job transfer took him to California for several years. When Kirby returned to Portland, he joined Vrooman and new color guy Ron Ross on the air during playoff games as a roving reporter. And Kirby always had a box of tools ready to keep the broadcast on the air.
"There were many times I'd be there holding an open microphone and John would be working away with his soldering gun trying to fix something," Vrooman said.
Kirby also worked on the technical side of TV broadcasts of NBA games for the Trail Blazers and national networks.
Todd Vrooman, Dean's son and the current voice of the Winterhawks, got to know Kirby during the 2011 playoffs. Todd Vrooman was the color commentator at the time, and he and Kirby would ride together to the road games as the Hawks advanced to the WHL finals.
One day in Spokane, Washington, Todd Vrooman remembers waiting to have lunch with Kirby, only Kirby had disappeared. Turns out Kirby had wandered up to a Catholic church to play its old-school organ.
As a roving reporter for Winterhawks radio and TV broadcasts, Kirby talked to everyone: coaches, scouts, former players, fans.
"You never knew what he was going to come up with," Todd Vrooman said. "He would find the most interesting stories and perspectives."
Kirby's passion for such a variety of subjects and his interest in learning were surpassed only by his kindness, according to those who worked alongside him.
Said Todd Vrooman: "He packed a lot of life into 63 years."