Friends remember life of Bill Burgess
Saying that Bill Burgess Jr. learned everything he needed to know in Cameron University’s speech program is going too far.
But it is true that his four years at Cameron left a profound impression on his life and helped set the pattern for his four decades as an attorney, entrepreneur, civic leader and, finally, publisher.
And every step along the way — from being inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame to serving as a university regent or as civilian aide to the secretary of the Army or being named to the University of Oklahoma Law School Hall of Fame — he never forgot Cameron or Lawton or the fact that his dad was an Army NCO who preached the importance of education.
Burgess died Friday at the age of 62. On Saturday friends and associates issued statements of condolence to the family and acknowledging the loss to the state of Oklahoma and the local community. They came from Gov. Kevin Stitt, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents and Cameron University President John McArthur and Fort Sill Commander Maj. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, to name a few.
If you spent any time at all around Burgess, you were sure to know that he was the son of a non-commissioned officer, the “backbone of the Army.”
“Bill was incredibly proud of his dad’s service to our nation and continued that tradition of service,” Shoffner said.
Bill Burgess Sr. was a retired master sergeant, and Fourth District U.S. Rep. Tom Cole has some understanding of what that means since his own father was an Air Force master sergeant.
“We relished our shared background as the offspring of career noncommissioned officers and the products of military families,” Cole said in a statement. “And we worked tirelessly in the public arena to advance policies and leaders who we both thought would benefit our state and country.”
“He loved being the son of a sergeant,” said Albert Johnson Jr., Cameron’s vice president of development and this year’s chairman of the Lawton Fort Sill Chamber of Commerce.
Friends say that growing up in the house of an NCO gave him a love not only for the Army but also for the enlisted men and women who serve their country.
And it instilled a certain amount of humility — a handy asset for an NCO when you’re at the mercy of shavetail lieutenants and unpopped colonels. Bill Burgess kept that humility even when he was surpassing his peers in just about every way possible.
“He didn’t take himself very seriously, but he took his community and the things that were important to the community seriously,” said T.W. Shannon, former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, who said Burgess was a supporter, then a friend and mentor.
After beginning school in Germany, Burgess attended Eisenhower elementary, junior high and high school. He was no stranger to achievement when he arrived at Cameron — he had already earned the Eagle Scout rank, the highest award in Scouting.
But Brad Burgess — brother, and law and business partner — believes Bill’s experience at Cameron crystallized Bill’s vision and approach to life.
Life long friends
Brad said Bill met lifelong friends — like former wife Sylvia “Woogie” Burgess, and attorney Mack Martin and District Judge Emmit Tayloe — and learned many a lesson from speech professor Tony Allison.
“I think it had a tremendous impact on what developed from there, and how to communicate with people and deal with the world,” Brad Burgess said.
“He was such a great teacher,” patient and kind, Brad Burgess said of Allison. “It made an impact on all of us on how we deal with issues and how we deal with people.”
The debate program, Brad Burgess said, was a turning point in Bill’s life.
“He was exposed to a lot of things a kid from Lawton, Oklahoma, wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to,” he said.
At the same time, Burgess was affecting everyone around him.
Martin was a junior at Cameron when Bill was a freshman and remembers that Bill Burgess gave “200 percent” on the debate team, pushing the others to step up to the mark.
“He was a mover and a shaker,” Martin said.
Burgess was twice president of the student body at Cameron, and everyone who knew him thought he would go on to do great things.
“He was always unbelievably ambitious,” Martin said.
Martin remembers driving to Hobart for a hearing in a case and seeing a billboard with Burgess’ face. (It was, most likely, a billboard from the state Department of Commerce touting doing business in Oklahoma.)
Martin stopped and took a picture and sent it to Burgess, noting that Bill was now a celebrity even in Hobart.
That Burgess was a success, however you choose to define it, “didn’t surprise me at all,” Martin said.
It was at Cameron that people who came across Burgess noticed that he had the ability to make friends with people he disagreed with.
“Bill had the ability to see your point of view without getting into an argument with you,” Martin said. “
Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education, met Burgess in law school. Johnson was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1982 and later became speaker of the House of Representatives, and then president of Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Burgess was on the committee that recommended Johnson to be the chancellor.
Passion for higher ed
“He was really passionate and tireless in his advocacy of higher education,” Johnson said on Saturday.
His parents had stressed the importance of a college degree, and Burgess believed his education was transformational.
“Bill Burgess lived that,” Glen Johnson said.
“Bill Burgess was one of those individuals who made working on a project fun; he made it exciting. He had so much enthusiasm and commitment to the cause … and when you do that it’s not really work, it’s working to accomplish something bigger and more important than yourself and your own ambition.”
“We want to move the needle and make a difference, and he did that,” Glen Johnson said.
Larger then life
T.W. Shannon, former speaker of the state House of Representatives, called Burgess a larger-than-life personalitiy.
Shannon said he’s been told that leadership is getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.
He and Burgess talked frequently, Shannon said, and he said that Burgess didn’t cultivate enemies.
“I never heard him disparage them,” Shannon said. “I never heard him plot against them.
“He believed there are no long-term enemies, they’re just future opportunities to become friends.”
Burgess was always on the lookout for allies and people who could advance his agenda for Southwest Oklahoma.
“He cast a wide net for people that he felt could help in the community and help with the things he thought were important,’ said retired Maj. Gen. Leo Baxter, former Fort Sill commander.
Craig Billingsley came to Lawton in 1997 as new owner of the Ford dealership. He was both a friend and a convert to the Bill Burgess idea of community.
There was always something that needed to be done and Burgess was looking for someone to do it.
“He always just thought about the community and what he could do to make it a better place, and not from a selfish point of view at all,” Billingsley said.
He could be intense at times, Billingsley said, “but I never doubted that he had Lawton and Oklahoma’s best interest in his heart.”