Fish and words add up to a one-of-a-kind life


October 12, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

TILGHMAN ISLAND - A teenage boy in a red baseball cap inches toward the grizzled man on the dock and shyly snaps his picture.

The older man turns slowly and faces the photographer. "Do you want a picture with me?" he asks.

The boy nods and says, "You're Bill Burton, aren't you? My dad and I used to watch you on TV all the time."

"I'm still Bill Burton," the older man replies, raising a bushy eyebrow as the boy moves to his side to pose. "Who else would admit to that?"

A better question might be who else could live up to being Bill Burton.

As you're reading this today, the 76-year-old outdoors writer emeritus is most likely leading another group of anglers on his annual fall Chesapeake Bay striper safari.

He's no doubt puffing his pipe, fiddling with his tackle box and swapping bodacious stories with Capt. Buddy Harrison.

Between the two of them, there's more than 100 years of bay knowledge.

"He's one of a kind," Harrison told me last year on the way back in from a day's fishing. "And I should know because I'm one of a kind."

One isn't the only number. If Burton were a trivia contest, the answers would be: 76, 37 1/2 , 5, 2.

The first number is his age, the second his length of service in years as the Evening Sun outdoors editor, the next the number of times he married and the final one the number of presidents he fished with. (FYI: The lucky Commanders in Chief were Eisenhower and the senior Bush, not Harding and Taft).

He is, friends quip, the only man who has been known to take on his fishing trips his cardiologist, his undertaker, his divorce lawyer, his pharmacist and his cats' veterinarian.

That beats carrying a Swiss Army Knife.

"I always thought he was just hedging his bets," says former Evening Sun colleague and fishing buddy Alan Doelp.

Gov. J. Millard Tawes named Burton "Admiral of the Chesapeake," but Burton is more proud of being a Navy Seabee in World War II. Or, as longtime fishing buddy Calvert Bregle remembers him roaring during a torrential downpour, "I'm a frogman from World War II. Everything is OK."

Burton loves to tell stories on his friends. They have a few to tell about him, as well.

Perhaps the most told tale at Harrison's bar - well, the one that can be repeated in a family newspaper - was when Burton and the late Capt. Reese Layton took pity on a man who drove down from New Jersey only to learn that his charter captain had canceled.

Burton and Layton invited the abandoned angler to join them. Then the man's luck really took a turn for the worse. He died on the way out to the fishing grounds.

Burton suggested heading right back to the dock, while Layton wanted to proceed to the spot where seagulls indicated the bluefish were biting. Although Burton won the argument, Layton trolled all the way back to shore.

Heather Boughey, one of Burton's six children, says she "never knew what animals were going to be gutted or cleaned" on their Pasadena front lawn.

"He gave us a fish eye for a pet once," she says, laughing. "My friends definitely thought he was the coolest dad."

Thanksgiving, Boughey says, was a wild-game feast supplied by her dad that required "spitting [shotgun] pellets on the plate because you'd probably break a tooth if you weren't careful."

Boughey used to hang around in the Evening Sun newsroom with her father and his cohorts. "As a child, I probably learned more words than my mom would have liked," she recalls. "I was definitely not a sissy girl."

Bregle is saving his best tales for a novel he's writing based on his 50 years of lawyering. But Burton, he acknowledges, was part of his professional success.

"I represented his first wife against him. He didn't have much left when I got through with him, just a dinky Volkswagen," Bregle says, chuckling. "So when he was getting divorced again, we had lunch and he said, `This time you're representing me, you son of a [gun].' "

Sen. Barbara Mikulski met Burton in 1986, while she was campaigning at the Seafood Festival at Sandy Point State Park.

"He looked like a Schweppes Bitter Lemon ad," she recalls.

An avid angler, she wanted to know why all of his fishing companions were "Tom, Dick and Harry. Why isn't there a Barbara? He stood there, puff, puff, puffing on his pipe and he finally said, `You're on.' "

What she wrangled was an invitation to Burton's annual April "Water and Woods Ball" at Harrison's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island - 36 hours of fishing, food and fun. Get invited once to the 46-year-old shindig and you're invited for life.

Mikulski acquitted herself despite being tossed about by one of those typical late April storms.

"He kept teasing, `I don't know if women can fish,' Mikulski says. "I told him, `Men have their lines, but women have their lures.' "

After retiring from the Evening Sun at age 65, Burton rested for about 10 seconds - or five weeks after the inaugural edition of The New Bay Times - before he began pounding the keyboard again.

"We landed the big fish in our boat," recalls managing editor Sandra Olivetti Martin.

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