JFS, clients feel bereft by Larkey’s unexpected death | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

JFS, clients feel bereft by Larkey’s unexpected death

Hirsh Jonathan Larkey loved to cook and to throw dinner parties. “I’ve never seen anyone take such unbridled glee in preparing food,” said his wife, Susan Higgins-Larkey, M.D.

However, “he was not a clean-as-you-go cook,” she added. “It would take the family the better part of a week to clean up after his creating.”

But not many people knew this private side of Larkey. Rather, as Jim Welsh put it, Larkey was “the face of the mental health clinic” at Milwaukee’s Jewish Family Services, where he was a therapist and the director of psychological services and program evaluation.

His sudden death from cardiac arrest on April 1 at age 53 was a severe blow to Larkey’s clients and to the agency at which he worked for more than 20 years. “We’re still kind of shook here,” said Welsh, vice president of clinical and case management services at JFS and Larkey’s supervisor.

Moreover, Welsh has been calling Larkey’s clients to tell them; and once they got over the shock, “they would start reminiscing about how he had helped them, how genuinely he was concerned about their case and their issues, and what a great loss it was,” Welsh said.

“He would never give up on a client, and I think they really knew that,” said Welsh.

And Sylvan Leabman, president and chief executive officer of JFS, said, “I just can’t say enough about the impact he had on the agency, on his peers, and on his clients.”

“He was an incredible therapist, he was a person who had tremendous energy,” Leabman continued. “He was always positive and upbeat, a generator of new and fresh ideas. He was passionate about his work. And he was a catalyst for collaboration within and outside the agency.”

And his wife added, “Hirsh really believed that being Jewish was about taking action in the community.”

Larkey was a Milwaukee native who graduated from the University School. “He was raised in a household that was politically active,” said his wife. “As a child he was helping with the open housing movement. I’m sure that community and public service were part of his life from his earliest days.”

He earned his undergraduate degree (1980) at Pitzer College in the Los Angeles area, his master of social work degree (1983) at Washington University in St. Louis, and his doctorate in psychology in 2001 at the Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology.

Larkey was especially interested in working to reduce violence in the community. He was the Milwaukee coordinator for a program of the American Psychological Association, ACT (Adults and Children Together) Against Violence.

He also created and ran a program at JFS called Six Critical Conversations that helped parents have conversations with their children on such topics as violence, dating, bullying, drug abuse, and media literacy. In the three years this project lasted before its grant funding ran out, “several hundred individuals” attended it, according to Leabman.

And he wrote articles for The Chronicle. One called attention to how violence and domestic abuse do exist in Jewish families. (“Violence pervades the ‘good Jewish family’ too,” April 15, 2005 issue, available online.)

Another, quoted in a box here, offered advice to people who have lost or fear losing their jobs. (“Keep your eyes on the big picture,” Feb. 19, 2009.)

But for all his serious work on these and other projects, Larkey also had a sense of humor. Leabman said Larkey understood how stressful Leabman’s job could be, and so introduced Leabman to the Web site “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which proved an effective way to help cope with stress.

Larkey also was a member of Congregation Sinai, and was a volunteer coach for girls’ basketball at Shorewood High School.

In addition to his wife, Larkey is survived by daughter Eliana Larkey, step-children Maggie Higgins and Michael Higgins, father Dr. Jay (Lois Malawsky) Larkey, sister Dr. Deborah (Jack Harris) Larkey, all of Milwaukee; and sister Cindy (Joel) Hershkowitz of Newport Richey, Fla.

Blane Goodman Funeral Service handled arrangements. Rabbi David Cohen officiated at the funeral on April 4. Burial was in Spring Hill Cemetery.

The family would appreciate memorial contributions to Jewish Family Services.

Leon Cohen