Al Hirshen (Photo/Lezak Shallat)
Al Hirshen (Photo/Lezak Shallat)

‘Ordinary’ North Bay man writes his ‘extraordinary’ story

Al Hirshen is one of those natural raconteurs whose friends react to his anecdotes about his adventures by saying, “You should write a book!”

The Petaluma resident, 81 this month, is a Bronx-born civil rights lawyer, former member of the Carter administration and a retired international development consultant.

He was never a top student or star athlete. He is, by his own reckoning, an ordinary man.

But he has led a rather extraordinary life, guided by curiosity, fearlessness and a voracious appetite for working abroad.

Those qualities — summed up by his motto “Don’t stop yourself from doing anything” — are chronicled in his memoir, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man.”

The self-published book, which became available on Amazon in late September, is being launched this month at a restaurant, at several events at private homes and during the “Talking With Rabbi Ted” local radio show in Petaluma.

Hirshen was not always a writer. In fact, as a child, he struggled with dyslexia. But like many lawyers, he has a way with words.

Three years ago, a friend invited Hirshen and a writing coach to a breakfast that ended up producing a memoir.

Why a memoir? “For the grandchildren, of course,” he responds.

“But after one year and 500 pages, my ego took hold and I started thinking beyond them — to my time in history.”

Though he didn’t document his life along the way, “I knew my stories,” he assures.

But telling isn’t same as writing. He needed to learn how to structure, and how to engage strangers.

“I enjoyed it all — all nine to 10 drafts.” He credits his editor, Renate Stendhal, with keeping him on track.

Curiously, Hirshen is not a fan of memoirs, and he avoided them over the three years it took to finish his memoir. But he’s always loved biographies.

“I always like to know what the turn is: the moment when your life turns and you become someone else.”

From the reader’s perspective, Hirshen’s life seems to have taken many of these pivotal turns. He pioneered anti-poverty law programs in the United States and created the Carter administration’s first public-private partnerships.

Wheeling and dealing for development projects overseas, he was among the first USAid consultants to work in Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and Albania, and worked for nine years as a consultant to the leadership of Indonesia during its transition to democracy.

“My life has been figuring out how to move things through the political system,” he says. In international development, that meant “how to operate to get something done, how to make things happen.”

One connecting thread throughout is Hirshen’s Jewish identity.

“Mine is not a Jewish memoir, but it is about a Jewish man,” he says.

He also writes honestly about his “drinking career,” which went from “fun to mostly fun and some trouble, to more trouble, to finally mostly trouble.”

“Although I never went to prison for killing someone in a bar fight or while driving drunk, I paid a heavy price: loss of a marriage and family, economic distress, loss of self-esteem and deep humiliation.”

He’s says he’s been sober for 33 years due in large part to a 12-step program that he still participates in, as a mentor to others.

One of the most entertaining chapters in the memoir contains Hirshen’s account of his failed attempt to make a Hollywood movie about an acquaintance in Southeast Asia who was both a missionary and an undercover CIA agent.

“Throughout my career, I had excelled at networking, building relationships and putting together the pieces and people necessary to move a project forward,” he writes. “Why not use these same skills to produce a movie?”

Instead, he says he lost $50,000 and his marriage.

“As a friend said, ‘You lived a movie trying to make a movie.’”

Writing this book allowed Hirshen the chance to “look back and discover that I’ve had a lot of fun.”

So much so that “maybe I’ll write a supplement to this memoir when I turn 90.”

Al Hirshen book launch events: 10 a.m. Oct. 10 on “Talking With Rabbi Ted,” KPCA radio 103.3 FM; 6-8 p.m. Oct. 16 at Della Fattoria Café, Petaluma; 3-5 p.m. Oct. 27 at private home in Berkeley; 3-5 p.m. Nov. 2 at private home in San Francisco; 2-4 p.m. Nov. 10 at private home in Point Reyes Station. Locations at

“The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” by Al Hirshen (270 pages, self-published)

Lezak Shallat
Lezak Shallat

Lezak Shallat grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and works with words.