My Last Lesson With Chet
Updated: Jun 8
To inaugurate this Tri-Cities PR page and inspire my next efforts, I’ve turned to the lessons, friendship and memory of Chester Burger.
In a eulogy published the day of his passing, Ron Culp placed Chester Burger among the six 20th century founding fathers of PR, “right up there with Edward Bernays, Carl Byoir, Moss Kendrix, Arthur W. Page and Ivy Lee.” His image is centered among more than a dozen PR and associated pioneers featured by The Museum of Public Relations.
Chet was a great PR man. He was also a great man.
I inherited him, so to speak, in the summer of 2001 as part of a volunteer advisory council to the Air Force’s National Media Outreach Office in New York City. The council had been dormant for some time, and acting on a gentle prompt from Art Forster – a retired Air Force colonel and executive with Hill & Knowlton’s Manhattan office – I phoned Chet, introduced myself and asked if he would help us reestablish the council. Chet enthusiastically began to reach out to the brightest in the field, including the wonderful PR pro (and future Museum of PR founder) Shelley Spector.
Chet was gracious, generous, brilliantly intelligent and kind; he would listen and probe and listen some more, then offer both professional and personal advice, but often only after asking permission to do so first. “He was a person of Solomonic wisdom … and gentility,” said Harold Burson in an obit published by the Public Relations Society of America. (Sadly, we lost Mr. Burson, a PR father as well, on Jan. 22.)
Chet gave our team historical walking tours of New York City (if you travel or live there, get his book, “Unexpected New York”), would have Bebe and I over for tea with him and the equally gracious and kind Lady Elisabeth, and introduced us to his friends, such as Shelley and his publisher Jerry Goodwin.
Five years passed after I left the city before I saw Chet again – it was during the summer of 2008 while assigned to The Pentagon. I had recently won a soul-draining career battle, and over lunch in a midtown Manhattan restaurant he delivered unmatched encouragement that still resonates.
In 2009, as I considered leaving the Air Force without a place to land, Chet invited me up to talk and meet his friend, Father Peter Meehan. Chet wasn’t Catholic, but he absolutely was a historian, and Fr. Meehan lived in the historic James Watson House (in Chet’s book) in the Financial District, which today is the rectory that adjoins Our Lady of the Rosary Church and Shrine of St. Elizabeth Seton. Chet and Fr. Meehan had settled into a routine of meeting most Thursday mornings at the rectory to talk philosophy and life.
During this trip, Chet, who had changed roads many times, spoke hearteningly of the multiple options available to me, with little to fear for those with drive and talent. With some added influence from Father Meehan and Dick Hyde (my mentor from H&K), Chet helped empower me – as we all tell our media training clients – to take control of my environment. I chose the first day of what would have been my promotion review board to make the step to civilian life.
Chet, with end of life in sight and just weeks shy of his 90th birthday, took me to school for not keeping up with the times.
On Dec. 27, 2009, I received a letter from Chet at my new home in Pasco, Washington; he’d been diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer – just like that, no prior health warning; he didn’t expect to see the end of 2010. It was time – past time – to circle the cadre of New York office leaders.
With help from the NYC veterans, colonels Terry “Doc” Holliday, John “J.T.” Thomas and Jack Miller, and The Pentagon’s Cathy Jung, I penned a long-overdue letter of thanks and gratitude to Chet from the Air Force Chief of Staff on behalf of the men and women of the U.S. Air Force. I implored Col. Les Kodlick, the director of Air Force Public Affairs, to route it “with a sense of urgency.” He did, Gen. Norton Schwartz signed it – after first personalizing it “Dear Chet” – and in May 2010, Doc, J.T., Jack and I gathered in midtown to present it.
“It came at a remarkable time,” Chet later wrote Jack and I. “It pulled me out of a very low spirit and brought me back to reality.”
I recall that Jerry escorted Chet to the event, and although gratifying, it was also poignant; the brevity of his visit due to health, complicated by competition for his time, likely left all of us with some unfilled space. I sought out Fr. Meehan, and left town with his copy of Let the Great World Spin: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.”
In July Chet reported that his body was deteriorating rapidly – his granddaughter was caring for him – yet the momentum of gratitude was still building; the New York and Pentagon public affairs leaders were not yet finished saying “thank you.” At the end of August Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley presented Chet the Distinguished Public Service Award for his 15 years of volunteer service as an Air Force advocate.
On Nov. 2 Chet wrote, “My remaining days are lessening” – he was told to expect six weeks.
Ever the mentor, in December he took me to task. ‘Do you have the USA Forces app? It shows you where U.S. troops are stationed around the globe,’ Chet asked during one of our phone calls. ‘You should also get the news apps, they’re free.’
They wouldn’t do me any good, I told him. I didn’t own a smartphone. During the pause on the line, regret grabbed hold of me and I knew I was in a bad place.
Paternally – kind yet insistent – Chet coached me about the need to stay on top of the latest communication advances to remain effective as a public relations practitioner. The next day I bought an iPhone 4, and we continued the “useful app” dialogue. Just before New Year’s, he sent me a list of apps to download.
We’ve all heard people say, and perhaps have said it ourselves, “I’m too old” to learn this or that. It’s nonsense, of course. Chet, with end of life in sight and just weeks shy of his 90th birthday, took me to school for not keeping up with the times. He gave me our final lesson together – we are never too old and must never cease to learn, grow and live.
America’s first television news reporter (he told me he also reported the first remote TV news broadcast from a pier in Brooklyn) passed away on March 22, 2011.
Chet was a World War II Airman (war correspondent); TV news pioneer; president of the nation's first public relations consulting firm; prolific writer and photographer; and for more than 50 years a pre-eminent innovator and leader in our public relations world.
And he loved his Air Force. In 2010 Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young captured one of his many stories.
"I had an incident a couple of years ago, when a general said to me, 'You see that plane over there, that's mine.' It cost I don't know how many millions of dollars," Mr. Burger said. "Then [the general] said, '...you see that kid over there, 25-years old, he takes care of it for me. I don't worry about it. I know it's going to be done right, 100 percent right. I never worry.'
“You wouldn't find that in civilian life. You wouldn't find first of all a 25-year-old with that kind of life and death responsibility, and you wouldn't find somebody knowing that it's going to be done right 100 percent of the time. That's the wonderful thing about the Air Force."
Thank you, Chet, for making it, and all you inspired, all the more wonderful.
Learn more about Chet – and watch him speak about his early days with CBS – at The Museum of Public Relations.