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A writer with a poet's soul and a pretty good golf swing

By John Clayton, Staff Reporter
Published on Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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Ken Burger's friends and colleagues are writing their memories now because he wants to read them.
 

Ken Burger's friends and colleagues are writing their memories now because he wants to read them.

 

No more procrastination. Word along the Internet – through messages and social-media posts –is that the worst kind of deadline is fast approaching.

Ken Burger is dying because cancer doesn't listen to doctors who claim victory. It is a bastard of equal opportunity.

It doesn't matter that Ken had found a new life in retirement from the Charleston Post and Courier as an author and advocate for prostate-cancer screenings.

It doesn't matter that he quit the booze years ago and found the right formula for marriage on the fifth try.

It doesn't matter that he is a prodigious talent, a newspaperman with a poet's soul and a pretty good golf swing.

Burger retired from the Post and Courier in 2011, saying then that the prostate cancer that had sidelined him in 2007 was in remission. The “doctors say I'm fine,” he wrote in his final column.

He's not fine anymore. His goal of making it to Christmas is in jeopardy, I'm told. He is in hospice care in Charleston.

Burger’s friends and colleagues are writing their memories now because he wants to read them.

So, I am up late, struggling through the fog of my memory and the ghosts of games long in the record books to write this for my old friend who taught me more than he'll ever know. 

There's one more deadline to meet.

Watermelon trucks

The Heritage Classic golf tournament at Harbour Town Golf Links used to be held the week after The Masters, so many of the golfers who played at Augusta would come down for a more relaxing weekend on Hilton Head Island.

The national golf writers would come with them, and Ken would float in from Augusta as well, clubs in tow, to the press tent.

"Hey, Bubba," I'd hear him say. And a conversation would begin. He could hang with Dan Jenkins or any of the national writers or TV types, but Ken was from Allendale. He liked the rest of us – the ink-stained, underpaid masses who were in newspapers because it's where we wanted to be.

I think Ken and I connected, not because we were both sports writers, but because we had similar backgrounds, neither of them particularly sexy. 

I grew up here, in the rural Upstate. My first job was in a peach shed, making boxes at 14, working two years before it was legal. As I grew and got stronger, I loaded trucks.

Ken had loaded watermelon trucks in Bamberg as a teenager, doing the kind of backbreaking work in the Lowcountry heat that makes you long for something else.

We were two country boys, sons of the South who found joy in words and relief from being away from the fields and orchards, though it's fair to say that neither of us completely escaped them. They're a part of us as much as the words and the ink of our later lives.

In press tents, press boxes and pressrooms over the years, "How are things going?" was answered by something like, "it beats loading a watermelon truck" or "it beats loading a peach truck."

We'd look at one another and smile like we'd gotten something over on somebody someplace to get to that pressroom.

That's when life for him was "four columns a week, option for five." 

Cancer wasn't even a thought. Not then.

A few years later, with Hilton Head and Savannah in my rearview mirror, we were together again at the Final Four in Atlanta. 

We determined that this, too, beat loading any kind of truck.

"What'cha doing up there, Bubba?" he asked.

"Four columns a week, option for five," I said.

He smiled.

I didn't say that I was only trying to do it as well as him, and probably failing every day.

The Last Derby

We all like to think we're cool, but Ken really is cool. 

He's not Fonzie cool. It's different than that, more subtle. Ken is cool like this – if James Dean and Jack Kerouac somehow had a son and swaddled him in seersucker and khakis, it'd be Ken. 

After a budget cut in Indiana, among the first in the now hemorrhaging newspaper industry, I returned to the Upstate.

Far from the Final Four and Augusta National and the Super Bowl, Ken and I squeezed into the press box at Newberry College for the final edition of the Bronze Derby rivalry game against Presbyterian. He could've been anywhere in the sports landscape, but there we were.

I lamented the lost columnist gig in Indy and the changing business.

"I couldn't get my job again now," Ken said.

I thought about that and determined that the worst kind of indictment of the newspaper industry. 

Ken Burger, the winner of countless national and regional awards who wrote about a James Island (at least I think it was) track star, describing her beautifully as "equally kissed and cursed by the Lowcountry sun," would not get the job he did better than anybody I knew.

We wrote our Bronze Derby good-bye columns, working into the night and then said our own good-byes in a dark, mostly deserted parking lot. I, of course, looked for his column the next day because it's good to stay humble.

I don't recall the exact quote, but Ken was describing Division II football and all it's back road pomp and circumstance, where "the flag girls can be fat." It wasn't mean, but it put forth the picture we both saw when the Newberry band took the field at halftime. He just had the guts to write it.

It was perfect Ken – observant, a stroke with a paint brush as much as a pen and a little irreverent.

I don't remember a word I wrote, but I remember that.

Ken has an incredible gift as a storyteller and those memorable lines seemed to always come with ease. But sharing his talent and life – part celebration, part admitted cautionary tale – has been a greater gift to all of us who were lucky enough to work alongside him, hit a few fairways with him and call him a friend.

 

 

 

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