Born May 15th, 1942
Died November 20th, 2018
The RTÉ Radio One country music presenter and one-time writer-photographer with Hot Press magazine, Sandy Harsch (nee Sturges) has died unexpectedly after a short illness. Harsch's encyclopaedic knowledge and tremendous love of country music kept fans tuned into late night radio on Saturday nights for more than 20 years. One fan tweeted after her death: "Sandy's voice picked you up, flew you over the great plains, dragged you into real America and brought America into your home." As well as Country Time, Harsch co-presented with Lilian Smith Sisters Are Doing it For Themselves a summer series about female singers and songwriters across the globe.
At a memorial event for Harsch in RTÉ Radio Centre in Donnybrook, Tom McGuire, head of RTÉ Radio One, said Harsch had met many of the stars of country music and her anecdotes gave new life to the playlists she chose for every show. “Sandy’s unique broadcasting style created a wonderful welcome mat for a most appreciative audience on a Saturday night,” said McGuire.
Born the youngest of three girls in Rhode Island, Sandy developed her love of country music from an early age by attending barn and square dances. She became further immersed in country music while she worked for several summers on a ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There she learned to groom and care for horses and made money barrel racing horses at rodeos.
Moved to Ireland
She attended the private liberal arts college in Bennington, Vermont, for a year and left to get married to Jonathan Harsch in 1962. The couple moved to Ireland and their daughters, Caitriona (1969) and Rebecca (1974) were born and grew up in Killiney, Co Dublin. The marriage didn’t last and Jonathan returned to the US.
Harsch remained in Ireland and brought up the girls on her own – fluidly and warmly juggling her private and professional responsibilities. "Life was always interesting and varied for us as we got to meet many of the people our mother worked with. We were brought along to photo shoots and many gigs," her daughters recall. Rehearsals for Davy Spillane's first solo album, Atlantic Bridge, took place in her large spacious home in Killiney in the mid-1980s.
Harsch's first forays into journalism were to take photographs of the Troubles for an American magazine. She also photographed artworks in the National Gallery and was instrumental in the creation of the first "Georgian Doors" poster. But, her core interest lay in music and she became the main photographer for Hot Press magazine when it was first published in 1977. She later wrote for the magazine for several years.
Hot Press editor Niall Stokes said Harsch was one of the original crazy gang. "She was a very discerning critic and we were proud to have her on board as a writer and photographer. But, I think it is fair to say that she truly found her métier as a broadcaster. She was thoughtful and articulate. With her wonderfully calm, authoritative voice, she brought country music to life in the most extraordinary way for listeners."
Harsch got her start in radio as a guest critic with Pat Kenny on The Outside Track. She worked regularly in RTÉ Radio One as a panellist, critic and producer of feature items. She moved to present The Country Store on Century Radio in 1989 but returned to RTÉ in 1996 to start presenting Country Time. With producer Aidan Butler at the helm, she interviewed all the country stars and developed great rapport with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Brad Paisley, JD Souther, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The show also broadcast live from Music Row, Nashville, twice, and in 2011, Harsch won the Country Music Association Broadcaster Award for outstanding achievement by radio broadcasters outside the US.
Outside her work as a broadcaster, Harsch had a voracious appetite for books, reading everything from fiction to feminism, history and politics. She did the Simplex and Crosaire crosswords in The Irish Times daily. She continued to ride horses until too many concussions from falls forced her to stop. She enjoyed sewing, quilting, cooking, entertaining and pub quizzes with a group of close friends. She also loved gardening – both in her Killiney home and later in the walled cottage garden in her home in Bray, Co Wicklow, which she shared with her five cats.
Her close friend Carmel Forsythe said Sandy was the most amazing, interesting, loving, caring, generous, friendly and intelligent person she has ever known. Her daughters – both of whom live in the US with their spouses and children – say that she was a fiercely proud mother and grandmother. “She was very attentive – sending care packages and making many trips to the east and west coast of the United States where we live even though she hated flying,” say Caitriona and Rebecca.
Sandy Harsch was in good health before her unexpected death from cardiac problems.
Her last Country Time will be aired on RTÉ Radio One, on Christmas night, at 9pm.
Sandy Harsch is survived by her daughters, Caitriona and Rebecca; their spouses and her grandchildren, Jessica, Max and Benjamin, her brother Rush Sturges (San Francisco) and sister Dorothy Sturges (Arizona).