Editor’s Note: The Institute for Public Relations together with the PRSA Foundation and the Arthur W. Page Society honored PR pioneer Chester Burger on his 90th birthday recently by announcing creation of the Chester Burger Scholarship for Excellence in Public Relations. Here, John Budd, a 50-year friend and colleague of Chet Burger, reflects on Chet’s contributions not only to our profession, but to society as a whole.

I spoke to Chet the other day, and he is deeply touched by the scholarship award and the sentiment behind it. In our conversation, I was reminded that Chet’s citizenship transcends his significant leadership impact on public relations.

Last year, the U.S Government signaled Chet out for years of outstanding public service issuing special medallion and framed certificate. Such service was peculiarly unspecified but months later, like a page from a John le Carré novel, Chet was able to come out of the shadows. The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency publicly cited his Cold War covert (voluntary) service, largely in Eastern Europe and Asia. It was his second – and until then, secret – citation from the CIA. Later in the year, the Secretary of the Air Force pinned a medal on Chet for “Distinguished Service,” the highest honor the Air Force gives to a civilian. Previously the Chief of Staff of the Air Force wrote a personal note to Burger expressing appreciation for his years serving on the public affairs advisory panel. The list is long … United Negro College Fund; his alma mater, Brooklyn College; the Marine Corp; the former USIA, etc.

Few, however, realize that Chet lately emerged as an urban historian, leaving a legacy to be enjoyed by all Manhattanites. It’s a coffee-table sized book, “Unexpected New York.” In its 140 color pages, Chet presents long forgotten historic New York City sites … a tenement house and a delicatessen that once was the home of Chester Alan Arthur, the 21′” president of the United States, ad infinitum. New York is reported to have 12,000 miles of sidewalks and, over his lifetime I’d venture that Chet and his wife Elisabeth tramped at least 80 percent of them.

Chet was ever ready with a state-of-the-art camera, wearing out four or five, from stereoscopic to digital. Often he conducted, pro bono, walking tours for friends and acquaintances, even strangers, the only fee was companionship and an interest in New York history. Once I asked him how many photos he had taken and he, offhandedly said, “About 20,000.” The hundreds of hours of researching, cataloguing, writing and photographing that went into the book boggles one’s mind. It drew interest among the major publishing houses but all veered away deterred by the huge cost of color publishing 87 photos. Finally a philanthropist friend (Jerry Goodwin) stepped to sponsor its publication. With no advertising or publicity, no big reviews or literary hosannas it unobtrusively became an underground best seller. By word-of mouth, Chet was invited to talk to dozens of local civic, historic, cultural and professional groups, all of whom bought copies. Two thousand copies were sold (a third edition was planned)

Some 7,000 color photos, meticulously annotated, are in a permanent collection at the New York Historical Society and another 14,000 are in a special collection at the New York Public Library, each attesting to the quality and relevance of Chet’s works.

Chet and I were the only representatives of the public relations practice invited to speak at the memorial service in Mystic, Connecticut, for George Hammond, former PRSA president and, as chairman and CEO of Carl Byoir & Assoc. one of the giants of those early days (the late ’30’s and early ’40s) of PR.

A final thought… I still can vividly recall my panic whenever I followed Chet at a PR podium. He usually preempted the points I had in mind – more tactfully than I had planned – forcing me to scribble madly, re-writing my remarks as he spoke. Perhaps the enforced spontaneity produced a better talk than I had self-indulgently written.

John Budd
Clinton, CT

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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