If Wilfred “Wolfie” Churchett had not run as quickly as he did, famous actor and producer Kirk Douglas would not be about to celebrate his 100th birthday.
Born Dec. 9, 1916 as Issur Danielovitch and known in Amsterdam as Isadore “Izzy” Demsky, Douglas recalled the rescue in an interview promoting his return to his home town in 1985 for a parade and dedication of a park in his honor.
Douglas said the mishap occurred when he was about 8 years old. “The building at the end of Eagle Street near my house was undergoing construction and there was this big 5-foot deep ditch filled with water. Like a fool, I was trying to walk across on a thin board.
“I fell in and didn’t know how to swim and was drowning when Wolfie, I can see him now, Wolfie ran up to where I was, grabbed me by the hand and pulled me out.”
A land surveyor in later life, Churchett was assistant city engineer in Amsterdam for 25 years. Douglas stayed in touch with Churchett, visiting him and a few other friends on trips home. Douglas was generous to Churchett financially as well. Churchett never married and was living with his sister Elsie in 1986 when he died.
Other friends Douglas visited on trips home from Hollywood have also passed away, including Peter Riccio, who convinced Douglas to go St. Lawrence University and apply for a scholarship. Sonya Jacobsen Seigal kept watch on Douglas’s career, saving clippings and photos. Stan Rimkunas was a friend of Douglas’ father and proprietor of Eagle Street Garage.
As Douglas’ fame grew, the hometown paper, the Recorder, editorialized in 1957, “He can still be as much at home in an East End (Amsterdam) diner as he is in the fabulous night spots of Broadway and Hollywood.”
Douglas’ parents, Harry and Bryna Demsky, were Jewish immigrants from Russia. They settled first on Lark Street in Amsterdam’s East End where Harry’s brother Avram lived. A couple years after their fourth child and only son was born, the Demskys relocated to the last house on the left at the dead end of nearby Eagle Street, close to the railroad tracks and the Mohawk River. Three more girls completed the family, making nine mouths to feed.
Harry Demsky was well known if not well paid as Amsterdam’s rag man, cruising the hills of the city with a horse and wagon for rags and recyclables. He was a legendary strong man, drinker and brawler.
Douglas wrote in his 1988 autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son,” that his father was “the toughest, strongest Jew” in Amsterdam. Douglas was a dutiful son, frequently looking in vain for a pat on the back from his father.
My grandfather Harry Cudmore, who lived three doors from the Demskys on Eagle Street, was quoted in family stories as saying patrons sometimes suddenly scattered from the popular O’Shaughnessy’s Tavern because, “Somebody said something about the Jews and Harry Demsky is cleaning out the place.”
Some in Amsterdam fault Douglas for publishing his views on anti-Semitism in his home town and his account of a sexual liaison with a local teacher in “The Ragman’s Son.”
Harry and Bryna Demsky eventually separated. Harry stayed in Amsterdam at Boggie’s Fourth Ward Hotel. Bryna lived with one of her married daughters in the Capital District.
Douglas named his motion picture company Bryna Productions to honor his mother. In a speech in Amsterdam in 1985, Douglas said, “My mother, God rest her soul, used to sit on that porch (on Eagle Street) sometimes and say to me, ‘Ah, America, such a wonderful land.’ ”
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]