OBITUARY

John Burgess

31 December, 19468 January, 2021

John Burgess, 74, of Orleans, Mass., died on Jan. 8, 2021, following a stroke. He was a loving father, brother, companion and friend, as well as a news editor and writer in Boston for more than 30 years.

Described by friends and family as brilliant, funny, kind and gentle – a literal ‘gentleman’ – John made all our lives, and our writing, better.

Although shy, he was always so much himself that dozens, if not hundreds of people came to genuinely know him. He didn’t seek the spotlight or demand others’ attention, but those who noticed the subtly wonderful John Burgess were rewarded with thoughtful conversation; quiet, sarcastic wit; and an ability to truly listen to and empathize with others.

John was born in Baltimore on Dec. 31, 1946, and raised in the ‘Space Coast’ area of Florida. His father, John ‘Jack’ Burgess, was an aeronautical engineer and his mother, Pola (Carson) Burgess, raised John and his four brothers. His younger brothers – Steve, David, Bill and Tim – remember John had an intense intellectual curiosity growing up. The ‘Burgess boys’ shared a love of summers spent at their granny’s house in North Carolina and of good-natured teasing. John helped more than one of his brothers get their first job, and he lived with several of them for a year in a rented house in Tallahassee. When all five brothers were adults, John led a two-week project to build their family a cottage in Little Switzerland, a tiny town in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains co-founded by a Burgess ancestor.

John earned an associate’s degree from the University of Florida and studied at Florida Institute of Technology. After college, he settled in the Boston area, where he befriended many people in the local music and arts scene. Artist Judy Daniels, one of John’s roommates during this time, said John was “endlessly encouraging, through good and bad times, to those of us trying to say something about life through our words and hands.”

In the 1980s, John worked as a bartender and cook at the Tam O’Shanter in Brookline, Mass. He co-created a restaurant menu for the bar, became an expert pizza-maker, and helped turn the ‘Tam’ into a spot known for great live music and good food. John also met his future wife, Laurie Losen, there when she was hired as a waitress. They were married in August of 1986.

John left the restaurant industry in the mid-1980s and transitioned to journalism. Starting as a freelancer for the Boston Phoenix, he worked his way up to become the managing editor. He left the Phoenix in 1989 for a job on the news copy desk at The Boston Globe. He worked as a copy editor at the Globe until his retirement in 2018, most of that time for the Boston Globe Magazine.

John was known at the Globe as a talented, thorough editor with a wry sense of humor.

“John had the ability to identify not just the mechanical problems in a story but also the subtler, deeper, more philosophical deficiencies holding it back,” said the magazine’s editor-at-large Neil Swidey. “His invisible hands, incisive questions and agile mind made my copy better every time.”

Other Globe staff remember John’s intelligence and warmth, his penchant for workday naps, his love of barbecue and country ham, and his interest in men’s fashion, especially socks.

Barbara Pattison, John’s longtime fellow magazine copy editor, said, “His courtly manner and dapper style might be the first things you noticed, but the keen mind and razor-sharp skills were what defined him. He was an invaluable member of our team, truly loved and respected by both fellow editors and the design team.”

For many, he was a favorite colleague who was especially appreciated during a challenging time for print journalism.

“He had a unique way of at once projecting weariness and tirelessness,” explained Matt Bernstein, the paper’s letters editor. “It wasn’t cynicism. It was more like a bemused recognition of the absurdities we lived with that never lost sight of the mission of excellence we had committed ourselves to.”

In addition to editing, John sometimes wrote for the paper and the magazine, mostly pieces on favorite foods like oysters and fried chicken. He wrote the occasional column, as well – one about his beloved, beat-up Toyota Tercel known as ‘daddy’s car;’ another about his daughters’ eating habits, to their horror.

He and Laurie raised their daughters, Anna and Molly, in Needham, Mass., and remained friends after their marriage ended. Both before and after John and Laurie’s divorce, they were true co-parents – from working opposite schedules and sharing household duties when their daughters were young, to an exact custody split that meant shuttling two teenagers across town several times a week.

John dressed up as Disney characters for his daughters’ childhood birthdays, taught them to ride bikes and to drive, and was always willing to pick up a forgotten textbook at their mom’s house. He gave them flowers or chocolate every Valentine’s Day and left $20 in a coffee can by the door in case they needed to pay for a taxi ride home from a party. He helped them put together IKEA furniture in college and post-college apartments and bought them New York Times digital subscriptions. He was very proud of both his daughters and did everything he could to ensure their happiness. He told them he loved them all the time.

After John retired, he began spending more time on Cape Cod with his life companion of 11 years, Barbara Ravage. During the coronavirus pandemic, John lived at Barbara’s house in Orleans and moved there permanently in December.

He was very content during the final years and especially the final months of his life; he loved being with Barbara and being in Orleans. They spent time gardening and cooking, doing yoga, admiring the ospreys that nested nearby, reading, watching movies and closely following political news.

John’s friends knew him as both smart and intellectually curious, humble even as he surprised you with the depth of his knowledge. He enjoyed talking about almost anything because he either knew about it or wanted to learn about it.

He would call himself a pessimist – and, while he could be frustrated by the unfairness of the world, he couldn’t help but find hope and humor in life’s absurdities. One of his close friends, Jane Simon, recalled John’s sense of humor, describing how they would try to make each other laugh “with anything.”

“If I pulled together a flat joke, he’d say, ‘You’re better than that,’ which made me laugh even more,” she said.

He loved British comedy and mysteries, Southern food and a good craft beer or a good whiskey. His home was filled with handmade crafts and artwork by friends and family. He was a fan of many kinds of music, including bluegrass, yodeling and ukulele. He was careful and thoughtful about what he said, sometimes unnecessarily following up to make sure he wasn’t accidentally hurtful or misconstrued. He had a great sense of style and an impressive hat collection. He will be fondly remembered and so, so missed.

John is survived by his daughters Anna Burgess of Arlington, Mass., and Molly Burgess of New York City, and their partners; his life companion Barbara Ravage of Orleans, Mass.; his brothers Steve Burgess and wife Susan of Tallahassee; David Burgess and wife Ann of Tallahassee, and their children Taylor and Sarah; Bill Burgess and wife Maggie May of Monticello, Fla.; Tim Burgess and wife Patty of Canton, N.C., and their children Hannah and Ben and Ben’s wife Tabitha; his ex-wife Laurie Burgess Hutcheson and her husband Joseph of Plymouth, Mass.; and many friends.

John cared deeply about helping others and always set aside money for his favorite causes. For those seeking a way to honor his memory, consider donating to the Equal Justice Initiative, Smile Train, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Lobular Breast Cancer Alliance, or any organization that moves you.

John’s family will hold a virtual service in celebration of his life on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. For details, please email jburgessmem@gmail.com.

Services

  • John’s family will hold a virtual service in celebration of his life on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. For details, please email jburgessmem@gmail.com.

Memories

John Burgess

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Martha Rich

26 January 2021

This is part of what I said at John's memorial (with a source citation for those who expressed interest in the quotation):

Lots of us thought of him as “such a gentleman.” John had exquisite manners...but being a gentleman is more than good manners. I think it’s a matter of deep, instinctive courtesy. As Garrett Keizer defines courtesy in one of my favorite essays, it’s rooted in respect. It grows, Keizer says, “out of the recognition that everybody has a right to be here.... no one is mocked, no one is ignored”… no one’s “dignity is violated or abridged."*

John met the world that way, with the fundamental respect of an open mind. It’s a rare stance these days, and it’s worth treasuring in his memory and emulating, as best we can, as we live on.

*Garrett Keizer, “Courtesy.” No Place But Here: A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community. Viking, 1988

Julie Dalton

23 January 2021

John called me one night at work, knowing i was always there on the Living Dead desk when all the humans had gone home. He asked if i would get or check something on his desk. So i went back to the Magazone and there was his desk, in fair disarray. I found or checked whatever — but noticed that on his little bulletin board was cut out from an email i had sent some year or years before the moonstruck announcement of the birth of one of my grandsons. To this day i take it as such a compliment, more endearing than one he paid my copyediting when we were both on the Night Desk. ... And then there had been the time i met him and a mutual friend at Doyle’s and they introduced me to Oban. He knew all and appreciated all, a man of mysterious eminence. We loved him, all of us.

Joe Neustein

19 January 2021

John and I met as freshmen at the University of Florida in the mid 60s, and we later shared various apartments off campus. It was a good fit. He was realistic; I lived in a dream world; and each of us thought the other was doing the bulk of the housework.

We prepared one-pot dinners from Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book. These mixtures of meat, vegetables and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup were delicious. At least that was my opinion. If John thought otherwise, (and as I came to learn, he had actual taste in things—food and otherwise) he did not burst my ignorant bubble.

Once, when he came to see me in Miami, my oldish father walked in wearing a newish mesh baseball cap—still sporting a big round sticker that said “Keep Cool.” John politely waited til much later to blurt out his amusement.

We wrote an occasionally recurring humor column for the UF newspaper. I thought it was great, and I think John did, too. The writing led to our only serious disagreement. It lasted three days and was over a comma.

After college, I moved west and John moved north and we saw each other less and less.

Carrie and I visited one year when Annie and Molly were little. It was fun watching John enforce the rules. If the girls didn’t finish their waffles, they couldn’t have dessert--Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers. John knew it was silly, but he was serious.

He is gone way too soon.

Peter Zheutlin

18 January 2021

In haste I made a mistake in my earlier memory of John...our first born were Danny and Anna, not Molly. With apologies...it's a reminder that with aging comes senior moments like that.

Jon Keller

17 January 2021

I worked with John at the Phoenix, long enough to learn from him about writing and appreciate his wit and personality. A fine gentleman. May his memory be a blessing.

Tim Gower

17 January 2021

John was one of the kindest and smartest people I encountered in my 30-plus years in journalism. He was also one of the funniest. My sympathies to his family.

Trish Cyman

16 January 2021

I met John in the late '70's, shortly after I moved to Boston. He was working at The Tam, a favored local hangout. We dated for about three years. He loved food, literature and films. We explored restaurants, bookstores and movie houses. Among the favorites was The Plough and Stars in Cambridge. That became the model for creating a food venue at The Tam. Our first venture in the culinary world. We lost touch after I moved away, but reconnected around 2007. He spoke fondly of all the people in his life. He expressed great pride in his daughters. RIP John.

Jane Simon

14 January 2021

I met John at the Globe in the mid 1990's, working on the Living Arts page. We slowly became friends. I looked forward to getting to work so I could sit and talk with John. He always had something interesting to chat about. When we ran out of things to say we would find funny things to show each other. Over the years we would still try to see each other once a week. He would often come to my place for dinner and a movie or news. Most nights we would end the evening with a standup comic so we could shake off the day with a good laugh and dose of absurdity. When that was not possible, because of Covid, we would zoom once a week. He was a huge part of my life. I love John dearly. I can't imagine my life without him.

Miles Odonnol

14 January 2021

I was lucky to be one of John's friends starting in grade school in Melbourne, Florida.

Around the time of high school, John took up weightlifting. I was impressed by his development, and said so. "Weightlifting was supposed to give me a beautiful body," John replied, "but all it did was make me good at picking things up." That was like, 55 years ago. Still makes me smile.

I'm so glad that John and I managed to stay in touch across the decades; even after I moved to Taiwan we'd recommend books to each other.

He enriched my life. I miss him now, but look forward to seeing him again.

Peter Zheutlin

14 January 2021

My wife Judy and I first met John and Laurie Burgess in childbirth class at The Brigham and our first children, Danny and Molly respectively, were born a few days apart. About 2 weeks after the children were born, with the babies, we went out together for Chinese food, our first post-partum outing. John could seem reticent at first. But beneath that shy exterior was a razor sharp wit and a sparkling intellect. He was as kind and gentle a person as I have ever known. In recent years I didn't see John much, but especially as the years went by I was increasingly jealous of his incredibly dashing full head of lush hair. Life can be so unfair! Rest in peace, John...wonderful father, friend, and companion. A good and decent soul through and through.