Remembering Ken Burger

Tom Poland

Posted 7/10/24

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer
www.tompoland.net
tompol@earthlink.net

“Don’t forget to be happy. It’s the only measurement of success that really counts.” – Ken Burger

I wish I had known Ken Burger for more than a day. We were signing books at the same table. As we talked, commonalities surfaced. We grew up in a small town, graduated from the UGA’s Grady College of Journalism, and lived across North Avenue from each other in Athens, Georgia. We each even had a daughter go to Virginia Tech. We hadn’t been too good at marriage either. We were writers in South Carolina but never met until April 28, 2014 at a book signing in Ridgeway.

As we shared tales I detected some Lewis Grizzard in Ken. Then this. Ken said rather proudly, “I graduated dead last in my class.”

“I was dreadful too. Ken, how did two awful students end up being published writers?”

He smiled, those white teeth flashing, and said just one word.

“Talent.”

He was a good writer. When asked what makes a good writer, here’s what Ken said.

“I think writers are born. I’ve been in love with writing since I was a young boy. With the power of words you can make somebody cry or laugh.”

“Cry or laugh …” Yes, you did, Ken.

Two writers, two UGA Dawgs. (Photo by Tom Poland)

I never saw him again, but last week I came across the photo of us in Ridgeway. I knew I had to write about my fellow alum. I reached out to Teddy Hefner, journalist and radio host of “Talking Sports” on Fox Sports 1400 a.m. in Columbia. Teddy shared a memory.

“We were covering a baseball tournament in Miami and went out on the town one night. Ken was having a good time flirting with the young ladies. I kidded him that if he didn’t hire me in Charleston, I was going to tell his wife about all the young ladies. I used her name. Ken was the sports editor at the Charleston Post & Courier then and I was not very happy at The State. Ken looked at me, smiled and said ‘Teddy that was two wives ago.’ ”

Yep, Ken had some Lewis Grizzard in him.

I reached out to Bob Gillespie, former sportswriter and co-author of South Carolina Golf. “He was my closest friend in the sports writing fraternity, a guy I met while we were in our 20s and stayed close to for forty years, spending two decades redefining what made for great stories. His style was simple and direct and always concise in columns for the Charleston Post & Courier, many of which won countless awards. He kept his prose to 500 words–and still outshone all his colleagues. Usually in 10 words or less, he got to the heart of a matter. The rest was gravy, or more accurately, gold. Take, for example, his best-known lead ever, one that made him famous among his writing colleagues–and infamous among a certain element of his readership:

‘I love women. I love basketball. I hate women’s basketball.’

“Ten words, and you knew you either loved what he thought or hated it. You did not, ever, yawn and move on from a Burger column.”

Bob added that Ken was always the first writer in a press box before a game and, of course, always the first to finish and head out afterward. “The man was fast: once he sat to the keyboard, the genius flowed out quickly. I don’t know how well you knew Ken or his prodigious reputation among sports writers in South Carolina and the Southeast, but he was iconic, in part, because he rarely tried to be anything other than what he was: a terrific writer of column-length stories, a teller of tales, a droll observer of sports, writers, and life in general. And my closest friend among fellow scribes for, oh, about 40 years until his death in 2015.”

Bob said Ken was famous for his wardrobe. “Early in his sports career he settled on a look all his own, mostly black (occasionally white) golf shirts, black or khaki pants, black shoes. He was a sportswriter’s Johnny Cash in that look.”

Bob said he and Ken were discussing “writing the truth” as Journalism goes. “He smiled, and quietly, non-judgmentally, said that while he had no problem excoriating pompous coaches or arrogant professional athletes, he believed ‘the truth’ in such cases wasn’t always the way to go. I try never to hurt someone who doesn’t deserve it,” he said. “I never forgot that. I think it made me a better writer, more attuned to people’s lives. I know it made me a better person.”

Ken died October 20, 2015 of prostate cancer two days shy of his 66th birthday. I read this in his obituary. “Ken’s impact went beyond journalism to saving and extending lives. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007, he wrote a series of powerful columns about his courageous battle, turning his diagnosis into an awareness campaign and encouraging men to get screened for cancer.”

Gene Sapakoff spent 38 years at the Post and Courier as a columnist. He wrote a column with the subhead “Ken saves lives” in it. “So this guy walks into a Charleston urologist’s office, which isn’t as funny as walking into a bar, but more helpful. ‘I guess,’ the doctor said, ‘you’re here because of Ken Burger?’

“There’s no punch line. No gut-punch, either. ‘You’re well,’ the doc said after taking the gloves off. ‘More and more guys come in early. Ken’s saved a lot of lives in the Lowcountry.’ ”

Sapakoff wrote this also. “The great man who was last in his class at Georgia is the first sports guy in the South Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame precisely because he was so much more than a sports guy. A whole bunch of prostate cancer survivors (and those who love them) know that.”

The day we met day he signed his book, Baptized in Sweet Tea to me, writing, “To Tom, Be Sweet, Go Dawgs!” Yes, how I wish I had known Ken Burger for more than a day. We crossed paths just that one time, but I will tell you this: Nice guys do finish last. I envy those who knew Ken and I will remember him with reverence the rest of my life.


Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net

Email Tom about most anything at at tompol@earthlink.net 

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