Award-winning Buffalo News reporter Dan Herbeck, keynote speaker at Erie Community College’s 65th commencement Wednesday evening in the steamy SUNY Buffalo State Sports Arena, gave himself as an example of how an ECC degree can lead to success.
“I was one of you 39 years ago,” he told nearly 900 members of the Class of 2013. “I was not much of a deep thinker in those days. As I was sitting out there in my uncomfortable robe and hat, I was thinking about how long this was going to last and I was thinking about beer.”
Herbeck recounted how he was a terrible student at Sweet Home High School, flunking math and science. After a guidance counselor recognized his aptitude for writing, he knew that was what he wanted to do. For that, however, he needed a four-year degree.
He said he set his sights on a journalism degree from St. Bonaventure University, but his father, a Dunlop worker, and his mother, a bartender, couldn’t afford to send him there.
“I took a year off and worked three jobs,” he recalled. “I tended bar, I pumped gas and I ran the roller coaster at the ‘Fun Wow’ place, Fantasy Island.” He got his degree from St. Bonaventure, he added, “thanks to two years of credits at bargain rates at ECC and loans.”
“I was blessed when the Buffalo News gave me an internship in 1977,” he said, “and blessed again in 1978 when they hired me full-time and assigned me to cover police headquarters. I’ve covered horrible murders, great rock concerts and horrible Super Bowls featuring the Buffalo Bills.”
Herbeck estimated that he’s written more 11,000 stories and interviewed more than 25,000 people during his career.
Herbeck talked about his biggest interview, with Pendleton native Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. McVeigh’s story turned into a best-selling book, “American Terrorist.”
Herbeck, who spoke with McVeigh on death row with his co-author, News reporter Lou Michel, noted that the convicted mass murderer “didn’t have the slightest bit of guilt over it. No remorse.”
He said he still gets calls about the McVeigh case from the national media and recently went to Hollywood for the filming of a television documentary about it.
He concluded by talking about “the most inspiring story I’ve ever worked on.”
“It began with an 11-year-old baseball player named Kevin Stephan,” he said. “In 1999, another player swung a bat and hit Kevin hard in the chest. He fell down and was having convulsions. His heart stopped. Luckily for Kevin, a nurse was watching the game. Her name was Penny Brown. She gave Kevin CPR and saved his life.”
Several years later, he continued, Brown was having lunch at a restaurant in Depew and began choking.
“Luckily, a young volunteer firefighter was working in the kitchen. He heard the screams, ran out into the dining room and found Penny on the floor. He gave her the Heimlich maneuver. This was the same young man Penny had saved six years earlier. He was able to return the favor and save her life. A few days later, they were on the Oprah Winfrey show.
“So good things do happen in this world,” he added. “Do good things for others and good things will happen to you.”