Ken Burger died last week. He was the most interesting, special and unique son of South Carolina I have ever known. Period.
If that sounds like graveside hyperbole, consider his one-sentence bio: Born and raised in Allendale, Burger graduated dead last in his class at the University of Georgia, has been married five times, is a grateful recovering alcoholic, a cancer survivor and a happy man.
Journalist Ken was a stickler for the facts, so I’ll correct one and add a few. He did not survive cancer and his one-line bio does not do him justice.
Ken was also bankrupt (he paid back every penny), lost two homes (one to fire, the other to Hurricane Hugo), wrote three novels and two books of columns, was a Washington correspondent, was twice named the best sportswriter in America by the Associated Press, went 200 miles an hour at Darlington Speedway, jumped out of airplanes when he didn’t have to, climbed mountains in Europe, had a $500 yellow Karmann Ghia convertible with no floorboards, started a golf tournament that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight prostate cancer, visited hundreds of men in the hospital to help them deal with cancer, was the unofficial interpreter in the Senate Press Gallery for Senators Hollings and Thurmond, covered more than 20 Masters golf tournaments, went to more Super Bowls, World Series and Final Four games and other major sporting events than most ESPN junkies have ever seen… and these are just a few of the highlights that I know about.
Ken packed more living in his near 65 years than most folks would do in four lifetimes. He died just two days short of his 65th birthday and thus he didn’t get his final wish — to live long enough to collect his first Social Security check. He would have loved the irony.
I first met Ken when we were both young bucks in Washington. We had many great lunches. (He always had a club sandwich — “It’s a waste of time to read the menu, let’s talk.”) Years later when I was with the Palmetto Project, one of our lunches led to the Great Clemson-Carolina Food Fight, which collected food for the hungry.
I had the idea, Ken wrote the column to get it started and when I marveled at the amount of food collected and his vital role, his dismissive response was, “Words, just words.”
Perhaps what was most special was Ken’s basic decency. He cared about — and listened to — everyone. More than anyone I ever knew, he treated everyone the same — from high-flying politicians to low-living deadbeats, the powerful to the poor, black and white, old and young.
His line was, “What’s your story, everybody’s got one?” And he wanted to hear it and write it.
Ken once said that if you couldn’t tell a story in 500 words, you were just verbose. So I’ll leave it at this — he was my friend and I’ll miss him.
Five hundred words, exactly.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.