At 'The End Of The Trail'



With his bushy beard and ever-present pipe, Bill Burton looked like the outdoors writer from Central Casting.

His basement resembled a tackle shop.

His stories were lively and memorable, as you would expect.

But truth be told, Bill Burton was a softie, with a heart of gold and a center as squishy as an Easter peep.

He loved cats. And beautiful sunrises. And fresh, ripe Maryland peaches just off the tree. And kids, especially his granddaughter Mackenzie Noelle Boughey, whom he called "Grumpy."

And Bill Burton loved to fish. For his 42nd wedding anniversary this year, friends gave him and his wife, Lois, a cake with a fishing couple on top.

Weeks before he died - and before the governor made it official - Burton and some friends and family sneaked over to the Eastern Shore and fished from the pier that would soon bear his name. I'm hoping Martin O'Malley will give us all a gubernatorial pardon.

Even in his dying hours last weekend, he held a fishing rod and pretended to cast from his bed in Pasadena.

"The man was fishing up to the very end," said his daughter, Heather Boughey, who grew up in the newsroom of The Evening Sun, where she acquired the extensive and salty vocabulary of a true newshound.

A few weeks back, Burton called me as I was driving home from a Department of Natural Resources fisheries meeting in Annapolis.

"Did anything good happen?" he asked. "I can ask you now because I'm retired."

Hardly. Even though he hung up his pencil and notebook for the second time in June, Burton was working on a piece for the Bay Weekly before he got too ill to continue. That was just his way, since Aug. 26, 1956, the first day he set foot in The Evening Sun's newsroom.

With six columns a week in the state's biggest newspaper and Baltimore radio and TV shows, Burton was a multiplatform journalist before Internet hotshots ever came up with that term.

One more thing: He could also write a mean expense account.

"His expense accounts were as entertaining as his columns," said Mike Davis, an Evening Sun assistant managing editor who monitored such things. "They told an incredible story of where he had been and what he had been doing. But the embroidery ... was nothing short of fascinating."

Davis recalled Burton extracting from his bulging wallet tatters of paper, "receipts from the Crimean War," but no one ever challenged them because of Burton's dedication to his job.

Ernie Imhoff, The Evening Sun's final managing editor, remembered a deep-sea fishing trip off Ocean City during which Burton's party caught about 400 fish.

The outdoors writer sorted them - a dozen to each plastic bag - and then delivered them to houses and bars on his drive back to Baltimore.

"Sometimes, he'd just open a door, toss a bag and shout, 'Burton. Fish,' and we'd drive off to the next stop," Imhoff said. "He had more friends than anyone else and they didn't have to be hunters or fishermen."

DNR Secretary John Griffin called Burton "a man for all seasons."

"He chronicled our conservation successes - and our failures - with professionalism and integrity. His unique insights inspired us to reflect upon our own beliefs. And he fostered an appreciation of our beloved Chesapeake Bay that to this day stretches far beyond its challenged waters," Griffin said. "His loss is a loss not only for the outdoors community, but for all those who seek solace in our natural world."

When DNR was looking for a way to entice more people to fish, Burton suggested reviving a short-lived promotion from the 1950s, "The Search for Diamond Jim" contest, as a component of the Maryland Fishing Challenge, now in its fifth year. Although no one has caught the $25,000 striped bass with the neon-green tag this year, more than 1,000 anglers have qualified for this year's grand drawing at Sandy Point State Park on Sept. 19.

Thank Burton for that.

No doubt he would cringe at the fuss over his death early Monday morning at the age of 82. Instead, he might point to the column he wrote last Christmas, at a time when we felt sorry for ourselves for the economic mess we were in.

"We must carry on - and in doing so we spark a resurgence in life around us," Burton wrote. "For a time, things may be a bit tough. But if you and I keep our spirits up, it will prove contagious. We will build confidence in our present and future well-being. Others will follow. ... We old timers promise you we have witnessed times when things were much worse, then enjoyed times when things were much better. That's the way it has always been; surely always will be."

For those of us in the sagging newspaper business, he offered these words in April at his induction into the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association Hall of Fame:

"When you get to the end of the trail, there's nothing better than the knowledge or the feeling that you were there when journalism was the greatest damn thing in the world. ... I was a reporter. I was never a journalist. People read ... it was so good. An award like this makes me think that it was all worthwhile," he said. "I just thank you all because you were all part of a good thing. There are a hell of a lot of people who were never part of anything as great or as much fun or as satisfying as writing a good story and using a pencil to take notes because the rain wouldn't wash it away. And copy paper was free. And you could have a 10-cent beer without having to put some damn disclaimer on it."

As Burton would say, "Enough said."

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