This just in - a salute to my broadcasting mentor

People often talk in life about someone who helped guide them along early in their careers, offering support and encouragement. I just want to take some time to use my blog to acknowledge the help of my most influential college professor, Dr. Charles Burke, who died on Tuesday in St. Augustine, Florida, after a battle with cancer.

I met Dr. Burke when I started my junior year at the University of Florida in 1983; he was teaching the introductory radio news class in the Broadcasting department, and would leave a lasting impact on my career.

A former TV reporter for ABC, Burke had spent some time in Vietnam working for the network, and getting bounced around in local TV news in Philadelphia, before deciding on an academic route.

We hit it off quick.  Neither of us particularly liked where television news was heading, both of us were innately suspicious of people in authority, we loved the immediacy of radio, and thoroughly enjoyed the news business.

"If they ask for your ID, tell them you don't have to show any," he said as he dispatched me to the county office that held health records on local restaurants, and suggested that I go to the courthouse each week to look through the docket.

In college, he also encouraged me to string for stations and networks during my spare time, in order to make a few extra bucks.

"That's where you make your beer money," he would say with a big smile, as he celebrated my first freelance check from a Chicago radio station in 1984.

In class, Dr. Burke would stand at the lectern and grab our attention by pretending to be a news anchor who was just handed a piece of paper from the side, saying, "This just in."

That phrase is something I often use on Twitter today.

In my senior year at college, Dr. Burke encouraged me to try to go back to Washington to find work in radio news, instead of pursuing a more normal course of starting out in a small market and working my way up.

To help me out, Dr. Burke wrote a letter to one of his former students at the University of Missouri, who was doing radio news in D.C. for RKO Radio, asking him to meet with me on my Christmas break in 1984.

“John is a fine guy and I know he’ll be helpful,” Burke wrote in a December 1984 note about meeting RKO's John Bisney.

“I told him you’re our best and that you’re ready for D.C., given your skills and background,” Burke added.

With that letter of introduction - hand written on a yellow legal pad of paper - I called up John Bisney and met him for lunch, launching what would become a lifelong friendship, as just a few years later I was on Capitol Hill, working alongside Bisney in the press gallery.

"What a guy," Bisney said to me on Friday.

Several times over the years, Dr. Burke visited me in Washington - I remember taking him along for an interview with Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA), as the two college professors chatted each other up after I finished my questions with the future Speaker.

At one point around 2000, the two of us had lost touch, but we caught up after I tracked down his daughter Hilary, who was working as a reporter for Reuters in South America.

Able to listen to me on WOKV radio in Jacksonville, Dr. Burke kept tabs on my career, and became a regular attendee at some of my radio station events in Florida over the years, a welcome face in crowd.

"Pleased to see that you still love the game and retain your 'optimism' despite the cynicism of many other journalists and politicos themselves," he wrote me in a 2012 email after one station event with our listeners.

Back in January of this year, I took my kids down to see my father in Florida, and met up with Dr. Burke and his wife Janet for lunch.

His cancer was in remission, he told me, with a laugh that would be familiar to all of his past students and friends.

But that didn't last long.

"I'm reasonably well, although my 'remission' period was disappointingly brief," he wrote me in late April, as his cancer had returned.

Not even three months later, his wife brought the sad news - that the cancer had won.

This just in - Charles Burke had a heck of a life.  And I am the better man for it.

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