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University of Missouri

A Hearty Handshake

Mizzou alumnus taught his students how to properly introduce themselves.

George Pirch

George Pirch’s trademark lesson stressed a firm grip and maintaining eye contact.

George Pirch was a youngster working part time at a Richmond, Missouri, filling station when a salesman nicknamed “Slick” taught him a lesson that would alter students’ lives decades later. After the gentleman paid for his gas (at 19 cents-per-gallon circa 1950), the transaction ended with a handshake.

“He was a good salesman, and he said ‘Pirchy, put some firmness in that handshake like you mean it,’ ” says Pirch, who at 81 is retired from full-time teaching and coaching football after 26 years at Oak Grove (Missouri) High School. “It proved valuable, and when I started teaching, I decided to pass it along to my students.”

George Pirch

George Pirch was a running back on Mizzou’s junior varsity football team in the 1950s.

Pirch, BS Ed ’55, M Ed ’66, MA ’73, has been battling kidney cancer since 2000, lung cancer since 2013 and bone cancer since August 2014. When his supportive community created the Facebook page “Coach Pirch’s Wall of Fame,” thousands of former students and colleagues expressed their gratitude. Many recalled the teacher’s unusual but profound lesson on how to professionally introduce oneself.

“Offer a firm handshake — not a bone-crusher, but not a dry washcloth either,” Pirch lectures. “Maintain eye contact, but don’t try to hypnotize them like Dracula. And speak your name clearly and loud enough.”

A former junior varsity running back at Mizzou, Pirch taught football fundamentals to thousands of Oak Grove Panthers over the years as coach of the freshman team. This season, as a part-time assistant with the Oak Grove varsity team, Pirch collided with some players on the sideline during a district playoff game resulting in a broken hip. The injury wasn’t serious enough to keep Pirch and his wife, Ruth Hertzog Pirch, BS HE ’65, MS ’73, from cheering the Panthers to a 49-14 victory against the California Pintos in the Class 3 state semifinal Nov. 21. Oak Grove plays John Burroughs School for the title 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 28, at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

George and Ruth Pirch

George and Ruth Pirch, of Oak Grove, Missouri, have five Mizzou degrees between them.

Beyond the gridiron, Pirch appreciates the finer arts. Since the couple began in the 1970s attending the annual performance of the Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, they have missed only one show — when Ruth’s father died in 1984.

“We would usually let our two daughters each bring a friend, and we would invite an Oak Grove exchange student or two,” says Pirch, who also took many students to their first Mizzou football or basketball game through the years. “I’m no expert, but I know The Nutcracker is a pretty good ballet.”

Surgeries and treatments have kept the cancer at bay, but Pirch credits keeping busy for his positive outlook.

“When I retired, the [Oak Grove head] coach said, ‘I don’t want you sitting at home in an easy chair watching Dr. Phil, Judge Judy and Oprah,’ ” Pirch says. “I termed myself an ‘unpaid utility coach.’ I work with the running backs and get the exercise I need.”