By In Family

A Drive to Charleston

Something really weird happened on my drive to Charleston to see a dying friend. My shuffled playlist began playing Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” Well, no, that’s not exactly the weird part — I mean, how weird could it be to hear a song on your playlist? Hearing it was pure chance. I just haven’t heard it much lately.

Ken Burger is dying. These four words stump me. You know that Woody Allen joke about how he doesn’t want to achieve immortality through his work, he wants to achieve it by not dying. I always connected that joke to Kenny. He was the one person I knew who might really beat death. Heck, he beat everything else. Alcoholism. Smoking. Bankruptcy. Various personal abysses. For a long time he was beating the hell out of cancer too.

And then, he wasn’t. Cancer doesn’t fight fair.

“Madame,” Hemingway wrote, “all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.” I think about this as I drive through past those South Carolina towns — Lancaster, Chester, Great Falls, Winnsboro, Smallwood. “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.” Kenny, of all people, gets that. Kenny is a true storyteller.

* * *

We met after a football game in 1989 … and after Hurricane Hugo had rushed up this same highway I was driving. I told Ken then that the hurricane had downed some trees around my neighborhood and left us without power for a few days. He told me that his house had blown away. That was only the first sign that Ken’s life tended to be more extreme than my own.

We became friends in Orlando, at my first college bowl game. Clemson against California. I don’t remember a thing about the game, don’t even remember being there. What I remember was going to the airport counter to rent my first car and being told that to rent a car in Florida you had to be 25 years old. I was 10 days away from my 25th birthday. The woman was adamant.

“Come on Bubba,” Kenny said. He was standing in the line behind me. “I’ll rent the car and you drive me around.”

He rented a honking Lincoln Continental, and I chauffeured him around Orlando. Unlike Miss Daisy, he rode in the front.

“There’s an easy trick to this column writing business,” he told me. “Write about people.”

That, I remember vividly. Write about people. Kenny was the sports columnist at The Charleston Post & Courier in Charleston, S.C., which made him a hero to me. All sports columnists were heroes to me, but Kenny was in particular. He lived the only life I ever wanted.

“Forget the sports,” Kenny said. “Write about people,” That’s what he did. I have never known a sportswriter who cared so little about sports. He was surrounded by people (like me) who had gotten into this business, at least in part, because they loved the games. Kenny did not. He got into it because had had just finished being a political writer, and the Charleston paper had a lousy sports section. and the executive editor was an ex-Marine who’d had enough. One day he called Ken into his office and said, “Fix it.”

Ken stayed in it because, he quickly realized, sports gave him a unique opportunity to see people as they really are, under the strain and tension and elation of victory and defeat. People can in daily life spin scandals into triumph, tragedy into political gain, but in sports there is the black and white reality of winning and losing, and Ken loved to see how people handled each. He could be as unsentimental as a hanging judge — he invented the term “fire a friend day,” for that moment when coaches are on such a hot seat that their only hope of survival is to sacrifice a longtime coach or coordinator.

He also could be deeply nostalgic and wistful and Southern. He loved to tell the everyday stories of people who overcame failure or defeat or adversity or their own blunders. The writer Pat Conroy has said nobody ever wrote about the wonders of sweet tea as well as Ken Burger.

Write about people. I cannot tell you how many times those three words crossed my mind over the last quarter century. He was amused by how much the sports themselves bewitched me (“Lots of numbers in your column today, Bubba,” he’d say. “Nobody to write about?”). For him, the sports were barely a backdrop. He played golf, but other than that I doubt Kenny ever spent a single afternoon of his free time watching or playing a game he wasn’t writing about. I know he never got an autograph in his entire life. Well, that’s not quite right. He got one. That’s a story.

* * *

Kenny was on the Washington political beat in the mid 1980s, and he was sent out to write about a plan the University of South Carolina had to financially save the struggling Folger Theater in Washington. If you wonder why the University of South Carolina was getting involved in the business of the Folger Theater, well, you aren’t familiar with the general preposterousness of the University of South Carolina. You could spend your whole life at South Carolina asking “Why?”

In any case, there was a press conference featuring South Carolina officials along with Helen Hayes, the First Lady of American Theater, an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony award winner,  a theatrical legend of the highest order. Kenny had never heard of her. In the years of telling the story, he would never remember her name.

He got to the press conference early because Kenny always got to places early. That’s another story, but a quick one. When Kenny was a kid, maybe eight or nine years old, his father told them they were leaving for vacation at noon. Ken arrived at 12:10 to find that the family car was gone. They had left him. He began crying and after doing that for a while, a neighbor’s car came by. “Get in,” they said. “We were told to pick you up as soon as you finished crying.” He was never late again.

Kenny got to the press conference, and he saw this little old woman there and presumed her to be Helen Hayes. He walked over to introduce himself and shake her hand. She, without prompting, grabbed his reporter pad and signed her name — the one autograph Ken ever got.

But, this being Ken Burger, the story goes on. The press conference began, and there was a lot of high-minded talk about the theater, and its importance to the world and Gary Cooper and Clark Gable and Williams Shakespeare. Ken listened to this for a while, and then when it was time for questions he raised his hand and asked, “Yeah, so, where’s this money coming from?”

Helen Hayes was dumbfounded. Who was this coarse reporter daring to ask about money when they were talking about the theater? When he asked the question again (and again) she upbraided him. “Young man,” she said, “These impertinent questions have no place here.”

At which point Ken Burger looked at the only autograph he’d ever gotten in his life, tore it from his notebook, and put it at her feet. “I didn’t want this,” he said.

* * *

To get to Charleston from where I live, you drive to Columbia and take a slight left toward the water. There is always a mess of orange cones and rocky highway between Columbia and Charleston, as if the people of Charleston would rather discourage visitors from the rest of the state. The Columbia to Charleston part of the drive is never fun. I started to think about how I would react when I saw Ken in that hospital bed, so much thinner, hooked up to the machines. I had seen the pictures.

At sporting events — Masters, Super Bowls, World Series, whatever — Kenny was the coolest guy in the room. He wore confidence. Well, no, technically he wore two of three colors — black, white or khaki. Sometimes he wore a white shirt with black pants, sometimes a black shirt with khaki pants, sometimes a white shirt with khaki pants. And that was it. He never splashed any color at all. He liked to make the packing as easy as possible.

But, he stood out anyway. Kenny was the one person in the sportswriter sea of neuroses and tics and anxiousness who seemed to have life beat. He sauntered around the scene like he was a restaurant manager just checking to see that everyone was OK. He wrote fast and easily, and he never seemed concerned about the next idea. It would come. “If I have 15 minutes to write about curtains,” he told me many times, “I’ll do it. “

Ken spent 20 years in the reserves — he is, in many ways, a military man. Show up early, dress neat, stay calm under pressure and do what you have to do. He taught me about the gig line — that’s the line of your dress shirt and your belt buckle and your fly. Those should be in perfect alignment.

“Bubba,” he’d say sometimes, “your gig line is crooked.”

And yet, in other ways, he was the least disciplined man I knew. Four-times divorced. Recovering alcoholic. Financial troubles. College dropout (and graduate). Smoker. “People are complicated,” he would say to me when I asked him about the various inconsistencies of his personality. I know that’s why he so loved writing about people. He liked unwinding their mysteries. More, though, he wanted to know how people made it through their own inconsistencies, their fears, their blind spots, the low moments when they did not live up to their own ideals. That was the stuff that made people human … and interesting.

He once asked the golfer Hal Sutton how he found balance in his life after his four marriages. Sutton was furious: “You don’t know anything about it!” he raged.

“Au contraire,” Kenny said. It took him a long time to find Bonnie, his soulmate, who sits beside his bed as the doctors give the ever-worsening news. There were four wives and a lot of pain along the way, for Ken and for his family. How do you endure that pain? How do you keep it from discouraging you? How do you learn from mistakes? How do you find a way to forgive each other? In the pictures I’ve seen of him in the hospital bed, Kenny rested on a pillow that says, “Pa Ken’s Keepers,” and displays seven fish that represent his seven grandchildren. Somehow, he found his balance.

“I’m going to die, Joe,” he would say to me when I walked into the hospital room. “I just want to make it to Christmas.”

* * *

We would tell each other stories, mostly. They were stories we had told each other many times before, but telling those stories is better than talking about how the cancer has spread into the liver or the bleak blood counts the doctors report or what it means when they say, “weeks to live,” or what the pain feels like or what is to come. “I’ve lived a great life,” he told me. And then, “Do you remember the time in Augusta …”

We would talk about a very nice but somewhat hapless South Carolina football coach named Sparky Woods. We both liked Sparky very much, but he lost a lot of games and he once had his players revolt, and Ken wrote those facts with enthusiasm. One day Sparky called up Ken to confront him, perhaps forgetting the Ken Burger No. 1 rule of Sportswriting: “Be friendly, but you’re not friends.”

“Ken,” Sparky said to start, “let me say I’m not mad at you …”

“Sparky,” Ken interrupted, “I don’t give a (bleep) if you are mad at me.”

Laughing hurt, he would say. Still, he laughed. He remembered the one person he ever fired — this after he spent time as sports editor — and how that person used to go around telling people, “If Ken Burger knew even one thing about sports, he’d be dangerous.” The guy presumably meant it as an insult, but no series of words other than, perhaps, “You’re a grandfather” ever made him happier or prouder.

The machine he was hooked up to started beeping loudly every now and again. Ken would look over to see if it was the machine malfunctioning or his body. On this day, it was the machine. “Battery,” he said, and we would talk some more over the noise.

He would talk about his children, and how proud he was of the way they turned out. He would talk about the people in his life he had hurt, and how much he regretted that. He would talk about his love of writing and how many people had been kind to him and Charleston and how the sun looked as it set over the water. He would talk about the nice things his friends were saying and writing about him here at the end. “I’ve asked everyone to write their obits now,” he said. “I want to read them.”

At times he seemed exactly like his old self — funny, profane, blunt as thunder. At other times, he did not. Burps interrupted his words. Blankness interrupted his thought. He apologized a lot, said the pain medication was making him loopy. “You were too young to rent a car,” he would say every now and again.

* * *

I wanted to remind him of one story in particular. We probably covered fifteen Masters together, and on Sunday, after the winner had finished, we would both walk down to the press conference room and sit down in the front row and wait. It was usually a half hour or so before the winner would be brought in. So we would talk until then.

We talked about all sorts of things — family, writing, where to eat for dinner — but to be honest the main thing we talked about was the giant Masters logo behind the wall.


“So,” he would say, “how do you play the hole in the logo?”

I would look up, pretend like I was studying it, and always tell him the same thing: “I’d play the hole left, middle of the green, right around Missouri or Kansas. That way you avoid the water and still give yourself a putt.”

This was our routine. We were Abbott and Costello.

“Yeah,” he said. “But you’re leaving yourself on the wrong side of the Mississippi and mountain ranges. That’s an impossible putt.”

“So how would you play it?” I’d ask.

“You aim for Washington DC and bring the ball back,” he said.

“OK. But you’re bringing the Atlantic Ocean into play.”

“Yeah,” he would say. “You’ve got to take chances in life.”

* * *

OK, so here was the weird part. As I drove into Charleston to see a dying friend, Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend,” played off my shuffled playlist. And just as it started, just as those windy opening notes began, it started to pour down rain. It rained so hard, that the windshield wipers could not wipe away the water fast enough, and hazard lights blared, and the road turned blurry. Cars stopped on the highway. There was no place to go. “Funeral for a Friend” played, and the rain kept on pouring, and nobody drove. And I thought about a lot of things.

When the song ended — after it had merged into “Love Lies Bleeding” and was fading out — the driving rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Cars were moving again. And there was a patch of blue that broke through the clouds.

I don’t know what it means. I don’t know that it means anything at all.

* * *

Ken Burger died on Tuesday around 9:15 p.m. in Charleston. I can only say about him the best thing I can say about anybody: He made people’s lives a little bit better.

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44 Responses to A Drive to Charleston

  1. Dennis says:

    Joe, your ability to write is surpassed only by your talent for friendship. Well done.

    • Patrick Driscoll says:

      Joe…spot on in so many facets of our lives. The trials, tribulations. Forgiveness and redemption. A wonderful piece and thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Mr Fresh says:

    I hope you continue to take your friends advice and write about people, Joe. They’re always your best stories. This was outstanding, as usual.

  3. Tom Grimaldi says:

    Beautiful. A story well written about a life well-lived.

  4. Vito says:

    This piece is how you honor a friend.

  5. Ronee Klotz-Groff says:

    I never heard of this man until now but I feel I know his life, his heart, his adventures, and his gift through your words.
    He strugged with life because it mattered and he came through until this time, in-tact with love, family, and a friendhship which endured and stood the test of his time and told his story. Two writers
    who seem to have the enduring gift of the love of people and then the sports. He was lucky and you
    were lucky to have had the adventure of him.

  6. Duke Frye says:

    Joe, you hit the mark again. People are the key. Everything else that surrounds them is just scenery that sets the stage. Isn’t it amazing how music always becomes are part of the story? A fine piece of writing.

  7. Hey Joe: It’s like Elton John coming on for you – I wore your t-shirt last night. It always reminds me of how I need to get better. It was in the early 80s I think, when we both wrote for The Augusta Chronicle. I was a news writer, not sports, and I thought I was really good. Then you arrived and started writing columns and right away I knew I was never going to be as good at writing as you were. Of course you had the freedom of a column and I had to follow the AP rules of news stories, but it didn’t matter; you just were better and it was going to stay that way. That’s when I started getting better. I started trying harder. I started paying more attention to details. I started listening to whom I was interviewing. I started letting them tell me the story and then I’d try to pass it on. But, about your t-shirt. Football season started soon after you got to Augusta and they made you predict game outcomes. They named the column “I Pounded Poz.” Readers were encouraged to write in their predictions and if they got more of them correct than you did, they got a t-shirt with a not-too-flatteering caricature of you by the great Rick McKee and a big headline, “I Pounded Pos.” I know you didn’t want to do it to start with and you had a rough first few weeks. Everybody was pounding you. As I remember it, and I might be wrong, but The Chronicle ran out of t-shirts and had to run a notice that people would have to wait a couple of weeks to get theirs. About the third or fourth week of the season I sent in my predictions and I was going to quit the first time I pounded. Well, I pounded that first week and I got my t-shirt but I’m pretty sure I never told you. I knew that by now you were secretly annoyed by the legions of obnoxious football fans (oxymoron?) who crowed about pounding the Poz. All these years later that t-shirt is exceedingly comfortable, but it doesn’t make me think about how I picked more winners than you did. It makes me think about getting prepared for an interview and about listening instead of telling. To this day I love reading your stories because they make me smile; they make me listen; they make me better.

  8. Gerry says:

    Damn you, Joe. I’m sitting here at Safeco Field and my wife is wondering why I have tears in my eyes. It’s not because the Mariners are playing yet another meaningless September game. No, it’s because of the amazing way you draw the reader into your narrative and make the story personal to them. Never stop writing about people and how important we are to each other (Katie the Prefect comes to mind). Let Ken know he has a lot of people he doesn’t know praying for him to make it to Christmas.

  9. Joe Palisi says:

    A fitting tribute.

  10. Marian Elizabeth Lynn says:

    I went to high school with Ken, we went to the same church…I thought his parents were wonderful…Ken and my sister were in the band together and each year, before they marched out on the field at the first football , Ken would look at her and say” I don’t remember where I am suppose to go.” and a second later they would step out onto the field and do the routine….she never knew if he was kidding or not…Ken was an excellent writer…
    Ken, I’m so sorry to her this news…it’s heart breaking….my prayers for you and your family.

  11. wordyduke says:

    Exceptional writing about a person. Thank you.

  12. Elaine Moore Schupp says:

    Beautiful tribute that moved me to blurred vision.

  13. Russell Penson Jr. says:

    I love my cup of Joe.

  14. NevadaMark says:

    I would need to be Joe Posnanski to write about how I feel about this story.

  15. BobDD says:

    Beautiful – and not a word in there about Trump . . . is that allowed?

  16. Mark says:

    Ken has been a friend to me for quite a few years (although not as many years as to you, Joe). I, too, met Ken in the press box at a South Carolina football game. A couple years later, I was beginning to branch out from beat writer to an assistant sports editor/columnist. I don’t remember the details of the conversation I had with Ken one day, but I remember saying, “I’m not a very good columnist.” Ken looked at me. “Yes, you are,” he said. It wasn’t just him BSing me with false encouragement. Turns out he had actually read a good bit of my stuff. I decided then and there he was right. I’ve loved writing columns ever since. I haven’t had a chance to go see him in the hospital yet. Please hang on, Ken, until I can get there. Please.

  17. Pam Bailey says:

    Told as only a friend can…moved…to tears.

  18. Nelia Cone says:

    Joe, I don’t know you, but I do know Ken Burger. We both grew up in the small town of Allendale. He is such a likeable person. Your story is a wonderful tribute to Kenny Burger. I pray for his comfort.

  19. Squawks McGrew says:

    Nice tribute, Joe. That’s the man I remember. As a former sportswriter at The State, I ran into Ken numerous times over the years. He always seemed like he was in on the joke and laughed like it was the first time he heard it. Glad I got to cross his path.

  20. I wrote for the sports page at my High School paper. The teacher who oversaw the paper (with an iron fist) assigned me to various topics. When confronted with the fact that I actually had to write something, it was like “what do I write about?”. Then I turned in something that she found particularly horrible. “No, no, no”, she said. “Write about the people”. So I did. That made it a lot easier. But, of course, being a High School paper, anything that I wrote that wasn’t 100% positive was not permitted. That made it a lot harder. Essentially they had to be puff pieces. No complications. I had half of what I wrote thrown in the trash because it included details, or entire premises, that weren’t permissible. But the way you write about people is great. You generally keep it upbeat and positive, but also generally don’t neglect the honest truth about people and their complicated nature. That’s not an easy thing to do.

  21. Tim medlin says:

    Joe, you and Ken have made life a little better for us all. Thank you.

  22. […] A Drive to Charleston, Joe Posnanski on Ken Burger, Oct. 4, 2015 […]

  23. Joe, Thank you so very much for this. Ken wrote a blurb for my collection of short stories, What Solomon Saw and other Stories just last year. I thank God I got to see him in August when he and Bonnie were here in Chicago. Our mutual friends Nancy and Jim Litke had a precious dinner at the Silversmith Hotel with Ken, Bonnie, his granddaughter, daughter and her husband. We called the dinner the Big Reveal, as his daughter had just come from the doctor and got the news she was having another little girl. Ken tucked his tears somewhere as he kissed and hugged his beautiful daughter and cuddled his granddaughter at the news. You were a lucky guy to have Ken as a mentor. And, might I say you learned well. Mary Dean Cason

  24. mark says:

    The world can always use people who ask, “Yeah, so, where’s this money coming from?” and do not suffer self-important fools.

  25. Greg says:

    “Any game is important when you know and love the players.” Archie “Moonlight” Graham.

  26. Thanks Joe. I just realized that that is what I am doing, writing about people. It gives me a groove. So, well done. And that sudden rain storm? Well, that was positively Shakespearean, something I experienced in Ontario, Canada, when ‘I was much younger then.’ But the storm came and it went, and it left no revelation. Only awe. Revelations come when they damned well please. So I went on with my journalistic training and its subsequent wobbly career, and never got any creative writing in, until much later. Now I write at About people.

  27. frank vehorn says:

    Thanks for writing this. I wish Ken well.

  28. Elaine Lawrence says:

    What a wonderful story and tribute to a man who has experienced and accomplished so much in his life! I grew up about two blocks from Kenny. (Yes, that’s what we called him in Allendale.) I am about four years older than Kenny and four years younger than his brother Frankie. (Yes, that’s what we called him, too.) Everytime I think of these two brothers I always remember a smile on their faces and how much they were drawn to people and vice versa. My prayers are with Kenny, his family, and his many friends.

    Yes, I believe that patch of blue you saw after the storm means something. I believe it means a promise, and it is a good promise.

  29. JeffBabz says:

    Terrific writing, Joe, on a terrific guy.

  30. RickyB says:

    Sorry to hear about Ken. He was always wonderful to work with when I was the SID at Davidson in the early 2000s. And you’re right — he exuded cool. A genuinely gracious man who always was smiling about something. Never sure what he was smiling about, but that smile was always on his face. I wish Ken well.

  31. As several others who have posted a note here, I also went to school with Kenny and I’m about four years older than he is. We both attended the Methodist church in Allendale, were part of the high school band, and worked on the high school newspaper. Years later after moving out of state, I learned that he was a newspaper writer, and I had opportunities to read some of his columns (about growing up) that an Allendale friend mailed to me. I knew then that Ken had found his true talent in writing, not only about sports but also about growing up in a wonderful town. Ken is one of the lucky people who got to do what he loved most … write about Life and it’s activities. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he were writing or recording his autobiography right now … would make for some fascinating reading.

  32. Lovely tribute Joe. It was a pleasure getting to know Ken on the Southern college football trail. The only thing I admired more than his humor, warmth and charm was his seeming inability to break a sweat on deadline.

  33. Jasmaine Bartee says:

    How beautiful.

  34. Alex Parker says:

    Thank you for writing this. I never read Ken… or you for that matter. I’m a southern guy, with southern buddies who learned and taught each other so many things, sports were a backdrop, an important backdrop. We lost our best friend, John Reidy, a few years ago. This article reminded me so much of him… not as a writer or any particular thing. Just an irregular, unique guy, with a lot of those characteristics of your mentor and friend. We taught each other a lot over the years. Memories so sweet… especially those Master’s weeks with my buddies. Thanks Joe, you’ve got a new reader.


  35. Mitch Lubin says:

    Joe, I’ve read dozens, maybe hundreds of your columns when you were at the kc star. I also read your book about a man I had the good fortune to meet, the incomparable Buck O’Neil. You are not just a gifted and talented writer… You MOVE people. You bring out their emotions with your words and descriptions. What a beautiful story about a great and lasting friendship. Thank you for sharing it.

  36. A.B. says:

    The meaning of minutes…. So well done…

  37. Scott Plumb says:

    Every once in awhile you read something that is so good it’s unforgettable. This might be the best testiment to friendship I have ever read. Thank you, Joe

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