One of the first times I saw Dr. Ron Burgher, he was hurling a saucer against a brick wall in the main theater of Concord College’s Alexander Fine Arts Center. It was in the midst of a Speech class, and the act left more than 100 students — most of us freshmen — wide-eyed and wondering what we were in for next.
It was all part of a lecture on getting the audience’s attention. Burgher would always begin the episode by asking a random student if he or she believed in “flying saucers.” Thinking he was referring to flat, airborne vehicles carrying aliens, the student would almost inevitably answer in the negative. The instructor would then promptly pull a saucer from his jacket and toss it against the wall, thereby proving that flying saucers really do exist.
That was the way Burgher conducted all of his classes — by example rather than dictation. He pushed his pupils to new horizons and encouraged us to think by putting us squarely inside a dilemma and daring us to find a new way out. And, he was the driving force behind the Concord Communication Arts department, and its students for most of the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s.
I had no idea at the time of that first encounter that the man with the gruff voice and ever-present beard would become my mentor and friend. In fact, I signed up for speech in my first semester to get the class over and done with, so I wouldn’t ever have to worry about it again. (Little did I know at the time I would end up in a career where speeches, writing, and public appearances would forever be part and parcel with the work.)
As for Dr. Burgher, I would soon learn, like many before and after me, that the rough exterior hid a wealth of knowledge, an expert at argumentation, and a softer soul than most would ever guess.
His assignments were rarely ordinary and always thought-provoking. Among my many projects during my time at Concord were the weeks spent developing a public relations campaign for a non-existent police department, a debate assignment to argue that ugly people should be banned from campus and a speech on why barber poles ought to be illegal.
These tasks may sound frivolous, but the skills necessary to complete them were part of the bigger picture — learning how to reason our way out of real-life problems. According to Burgher, if we could make the logic work, the details would fall into place.
At times, Burgher’s practical motives weren’t difficult to discern. One semester, he needed an outline of a public relations textbook, and I had a scheduling conflict between two classes. The solution was a special projects course in which in received credit for one of the courses by outlining ever case in the book.
Another time, I couldn’t get into a copy-editing class, so Burgher named me copy editor of The Concordian. Problem solved. After all, if I could perform the task for the school newspaper, I would learn what the class was all about anyway.
One semester, when Burgher was diagnosed with cancer, some classmates and I put our creativity to work in his honor. Armed with a digital camera, we set out to create a large-scale get-well card. The outcome was a quickly designed tribute fashioned after the introduction to the classic TV show “The Brady Bunch,” but we called this one “The Burgher Bunch.” Instead of Alice in the center of the display, our idea was to put Burgher in that spot, but since he was off campus for surgery and recuperation, we couldn’t readily get a photo for the design.
Ultimately, we settled for nine photos of our friends arranged in the classic design and just called ourselves The Burgher Bunch, hanging the tribute in the classic order on The Concordian office wall. The photos remained in the newspaper office until Burgher was back in class and ordering assignments.
Our dedication wasn’t misplaced. Burgher looked out for his students when the need arose. If we needed money for admission, room or board, he helped us find a way to stay in school and still make ends meet. If a project didn’t make sense, he found another way to explain it. And, his door was always open, if we needed someone to listen — with the understanding that, if we were wrong, the ear we found might not be sympathetic.
One time, in particular, he proved he was willing to stand up, or sit down, for his students. A campus security officer and a coach appeared in the newspaper office to search a classmate’s desk, with no explanation to those of us who were on hand between classes. When one of us ran upstairs to get Burgher, he immediately came charging down a narrow, spiral staircase that linked the backstage area between the main stage and the downstairs behind what was then the newspaper office.
Since he was still receiving outpatient radiation, his treatment bag hung at his side. He burst into the room, demanded, in his trademark, coarse language to know what was going on, stormed straight to the student’s chair, sat down and propped his feet on the desk.
Flummoxed, the security officer informed him that they had a search warrant, and Burgher said that was fine, but he needed to see it before he was moving.
The guard reported the paperwork was back in the office. Burgher told him to go get it. Both men’s faces reddened in fury, but they left. Burgher sat in that seat for the entire hour before our next class to make sure the guard and the coach didn’t return without the warrant to bully the students without his presence.
Ron Burgher retired as a communications arts teacher at the close of the spring semester in 2003. I didn’t see him every year, but if I went to Homecoming, it was more to see Dr. Burgher than anything the football team did on the field. This year, I didn’t see or hear anything about him coming to Athens for the festivities, and I was curious.
I wrote much of this column when he retired, and I thought that was hard. When I got word that he passed away early Monday morning, I couldn’t believe what we’ve all lost. I happened to remember The Burgher Bunch, and that I had a photo of those nine other photos in the album I once kept on the corner of my work desk, which has graduated to the bookshelf across my office.
With the help of Ginger Boyles, I scanned it and posted it Facebook, where friends who were also part of The Burgher Bunch over the years, liked, loved and shared. We were all a part of that time and we were all touched by a man who knew for sure that flying saucers existed, because one flew out of his pocket every semester.
As much as it saddens us to accept it, Burgher’s life ended Monday, but for those of us who will always be part of The Burgher Bunch, his lessons will last through our lifetimes. He challenged us, inspired us and taught us that the art of communicating is much more than just talk.