Bill Burton

Former Evening Sun Outdoors Editor Fished With Presidents And Was An Early Champion Of The Chesapeake Bay

August 11, 2009|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Bill Burton, who fished with presidents, Colts and Orioles, told generations of Maryland anglers where the big ones were biting and was commissioned an "Admiral of the Chesapeake" by one governor, died early Monday morning of cancer. He was 82.

A Pasadena resident, Mr. Burton was for 37 years the outdoors editor of The Evening Sun before taking a buyout in 1992. He continued to write for the Bay Weekly and The Capital in Annapolis until his second retirement in late June.

"It's a sad day. We've lost a great guy. He was a legend," said Brooks Robinson, the Orioles Hall of Fame third baseman who fished and hunted with Mr. Burton.

A World War II veteran, Mr. Burton took up outdoors reporting and writing after doctors told him disabilities would restrict him to a desk job. A multimedia reporter decades before it came into vogue, he also did fishing reports on radio and for WMAR-TV in addition to his Evening Sun duties. He edited numerous regional hunting and fishing magazines and was a founding member of the Mason-Dixon Outdoors' Writers Association. In April, the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame.

"If you have something to do tomorrow, you probably won't die today," Burton once said in explaining his long career. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called Mr. Burton "a first-rate reporter ... adviser and friend. I leaned on him often for sage political and bay advice.

"Bill Burton has enriched the lives of so many," said Ms. Mikulski, who also fished with Mr. Burton every year. "He's been a one-man environmental movement, bringing joy and appreciation for the bay to every reader who's picked up his column. To those lucky enough to call him a friend, he's brought endless mirth, mischief and wisdom. His legacy as an old-school journalist, environmentalist and sage bay advocate will live ... forever in Maryland lore."

In the mid-1960s, then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes recognized Burton's contributions to promoting fishing and natural resources by naming him an "Admiral of the Chesapeake."

Last month, the Board of Public Works approved a proposal by Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Department of Natural Resources to rename the Choptank River Fishing Pier in Mr. Burton's honor. In 1986, Mr. Burton had used his column to lobby for saving the structure, which had carried U.S. 50 over the river, after a new span opened.

In a statement, Mr. O'Malley called Mr. Burton "an iconic figure in Maryland's outdoor history."

"The Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park is a small but appropriate tribute to his life's work," the governor said.

Mr. Burton was born in Providence, R.I., and ran away from home after his father wouldn't let him join the Navy. Determined to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he stopped in Vermont to say goodbye to an aunt, who persuaded him to stay in Vermont to finish high school before enlisting.

He joined the Seabees and became an underwater demolition expert, serving in the Pacific. While he was training for the invasion of Japan, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, ending the war.

After contracting rheumatic fever that damaged his heart valves, Mr. Burton received an honorable discharge and returned home to Arlington, Vt., to attend Goddard College on the G.I. Bill. He became editor of the school paper and took a job with a Montpelier radio station.

Newspapering landed him jobs in Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts before he headed to Alaska to be a police reporter and outdoors columnist for the Anchorage Times. Tiring of life in the frozen north, Mr. Burton worked his way back to the continental United States, stopping in Nebraska for a stint as managing editor of a semiweekly, until The Evening Sun came calling.

"All I had to do was write six columns a week, do a fishing report, go where I wanted - within reason - with all mileage and expenses paid," Mr. Burton explained while on a fishing trip two years ago.

His columns included adventures with sports legends - Weeb Ewbank, then coach of the Baltimore Colts, and quarterback John Unitas - and children.

In the mid-1960s, Evening Sun management persuaded him to grow a beard "for a woodsier look" for television work, Mr. Burton recalled. The beard and his signature pipe remained for the rest of his life.

With retirement from The Evening Sun came an invitation from President George H.W. Bush to go fishing. (His first presidential fishing trip was with Dwight Eisenhower on a trout stream near Gettysburg, Pa.). Sitting in a bass boat in the Potomac River, Mr. Bush urged Mr. Burton to come out of retirement. Within months, he was teaching at Anne Arundel Community College and writing columns.

Last fall, Mr. Burton wrote his own epitaph in the Bay Weekly: "I've lived my life as I wanted, to the fullest, and have no regrets though time has worn me down."

And then he signed off the way he always did: "Enough said."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. on Aug. 22 at Jenkins Memorial Church, 133 Riviera Drive, Pasadena.

Mr. Burton is survived by his wife of 42 years, Lois; five daughters, Elizabeth Steere and Kathy Wientraub, both of Mapleville, R.I., Mary Snizek of Harrisville, R.I., Ellen Lyon of Pascoag, R.I. and Heather Boughey of Pasadena; a son, W. Joel Burton Jr. of San Francisco; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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