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‘He was larger than life’

The Rev. Tim Hirten dies at 66

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The Rev. Timothy Hirten dedicated his life to his many passions — the priesthood, the U.S. Air Force, travel, basketball — and he had a fierce compassion for friends and loved ones, family members said.

“He was larger than life,” said Hirten’s sister, Maureen Agostinacchio. “He loved people, and he loved helping people. He was just so selfless.”

Hirten, a Bellmore native, died Aug. 15, when he was struck by a train at a railroad crossing in Wichita Falls, Texas, near the Sheppard Air Force Base, where he was a chaplain. He was 66.

Hirten can be seen in various videos doing what he loved most: playing basketball, performing Irish step dancing routines and spreading smiles. His career in the European Professional Basketball League took him to Belgium, Israel and the Philippines, and later he entertained many as a player on the Washington Generals, who rival the Harlem    Globetrotters.

Several newscasts from 2000 show Hirten preparing for a “Million Dollar Shot” at a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, a high-stakes challenge that awarded $1 million for a successful full-court shot. The excitement from children at Sacred Heart Academy in Bayside, Queens, where he was pastor then, was palpable: Hirten had promised to donate the potential funds to the parish — after buying ice cream for all the students.

“If a father won, it would go to his family,” Hirten said in a CBS News segment. “Well, I’m the father of a parish and a school, so if anything comes through, it goes to the parish. Now, I would like to get maybe one dinner — I’ll go out for dinner.”

The moment came, and Hirten launched the basketball down the court — with a little too much power. The ball hit the back of the rim and bounced off. “I don’t think I could have come closer,” Hirten said.

He still won $4,000, which he donated to the parish.

Basketball helped Hirten form a bond with his brother Terry, who also played professionally and later joined the Washington Generals. The two played and lived in Belgium at the same time, and they explored the country together.

“He’s a people person; he loved everyone,” Terry said. “You could be in an airport with him, and he’d stop and talk to 20 different people.”

As kids growing up on Long Island, the Hirtens had their own basketball team, the “Hirten Five,” which was successful in many recreational matches, Terry said.

Wherever Hirten was, he embraced the  local culture. He was fluent in seven languages, and sometimes offered Mass in locals’ native tongue. He loved communicating with people in their own languages, Terry explained. In the Philippines, Hirten even married a couple in Filipino, according to Agostinacchio.

His Air Force service made him even worldlier — he was deployed to Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Family members often visited him overseas, Agostinacchio said.

Hirten was also an uncle and godfather to Colleen Guarneiri, Agostinacchio’s daughter, with whom he shared a special bond. “We had an extra-special connection,” Guarneiri said, sharing constant communication through emails and taking trips abroad.

Guarneiri’s son was born on Aug. 18, three days after Hirten’s death. She named him Timothy.

“He has big shoes to fill,” Guarneiri said. “I hope he’s even half the man Uncle Timmy was, because he was an incredible person.”

Family members shared other stories about the unique life that Hirten lived. He auditioned for, and was chosen to play a priest in, the Academy Award-winning film “The Departed,” starring Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned the role down, however, not wanting to be associated with the movie’s harsh profanity. He stayed on as a consultant during filming, and later became a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

Hirten was also a member of the Knights of Columbus; a founder of the Catholic Sports Camp, where hundreds of children have spent their summers; a member of the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps; and a lead dancer in the Hirten Family Irish Step Dancers Troupe.

A funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Barnabas the Apostle Church in Bellmore on Aug. 25, and a dedicated Facebook page showed an outpouring of love for Hirten. From around the world, friends sent their condolences, remembering the mark that “Father Tim” left on their lives.

In addition to Agostinacchio and his brother Terry, Hirten is survived by siblings Michael, Robert and Nancy McAtasney. He was the uncle of 15 nieces and nephews and 20 grandnieces and grand-nephews — as well as three on the way.