Eddie Burke had a story, and learning Eddie’s story taught me that it’s true—everyone really does have a story. After meeting Eddie, I began to challenge students at Stephen F. Austin State University, where I taught writing, to find the story in every person they met with the assurance that it would not only make them a better writer, but also a better person.
It did me.
Eddie’s obituary simply reported, “Eddie Gene Burke, 69, died Sunday in a local hospital. An Army veteran of the Korean War, he was born Nov. 1, 1927 in Beaumont, Texas and was a retired musician in the entertainment industry and a 10-year resident of Las Vegas.” The obit also listed a handful of survivors and noted, “Graveside services will be at 8 a.m. Friday in Palm Valley View Memorial Park.”
There were far too many details about Eddie the brief obit failed to reveal. It said nothing about how he could write. Eddie could write a poem, write a story, or write a song. He could sing a song, play a piano, cook for a restaurant, or preach a sermon on Sunday morning. I knew those things about Eddie because I saw him do all of that—in the same week.
Obits also often fail to convey the desperation or the hope that a person can display when life causes it or demands it. At well past 50 years of age and without a job, but with a terminally ill wife and a modicum of experience, Eddie sat across the desk from me applying for an entry-level sports writer’s job at the Center newspaper.
That’s how we met.
“What is your writing experience,” I asked the quiet, humble man looking back at me through dark rimmed glasses. He was a short and frail person whose narrow face was both etched by hard times and anxious with an immediate need. He was balding, wore a tattered coat in the dead of winter and sat on the chair’s edge, wringing his hands in his lap.
With a voice barely above a whisper, Eddie told me his last job was cooking at a small restaurant on the lake, but was looking for something with a little more income in his quest to care for his wife. For experience, he said that he had worked at the Beaumont Enterprise, but confessed that was more than 20 years ago. What he didn’t confess to until after he had drawn a couple of paychecks was that it was a part-time stringer’s job. But, that didn’t matter, we were desperate for a sports writer and Eddie was desperate for a job.
Eddie hit the ground writing. He wrote pages, and pages, and more pages. And that was just about last night’s basketball game. Eddie wrote with a vengeance and with great detail about the game. He wrote about the coaches. He wrote about the players, about the cheerleaders, about the spectators and about the concession stand.
Between sports assignments, he wrote about his coffee cup, about his desk and about the traffic light on the corner. His style was, let’s just say a tad shy of journalistic standards, but for what he lacked in writing skills, Eddie more than made up for in volume.
Eddie wanted to succeed.
Obits also often fail to reveal successes achieved and lost. One night as we worked toward deadline while listening to 50s music on the radio, Eddie nonchalantly offered, “I used to play piano for the Big Bopper.”
“Really,” I countered instantly with a tone of doubt. Eddie was also a talker. His stories were interesting, but you had to wonder. “If this guy has done half of what he’s talked about…”
“I played piano on Chantilly Lace,” Eddie continued, never looking away from his work. “I cut a record of my own, too. ‘Rock Mop’ on the old ‘D’ label down in Houston … where the Big Bopper started out.”
Later at home, I wasted little time digging through music reference books, and it didn’t take long to oust the truth. There it was, “Rock Mop.” Recorded on the “D” label June 8, 1959. Flip side, “Too Many Tears.” Both titles written and recorded by Eddie Burke.
Shortly after that revelation, radio storyteller “Tumbleweed” Smith stopped in the newspaper office checking with local columnist and historian Mattie Dellinger for new program material.
“I got one for you,” I quickly offered Smith.
We asked Eddie if he would play a little piano for us at the bank’s community room across the street. He apprehensively obliged us, but fear and trepidation gripped his demeanor as sweat appeared on his brow.
He gingerly touched the keys with trembling fingers for several minutes before the first note rang true. “It’s been a while,” Eddie murmured weakly as he looked at us and smiled, almost apologetically.
Soon however, remnants of “Pinetop’s Boogie” from the 1920s were easily recognizable, followed by strains of random tunes that became more polished with each bar he played. While Smith’s tape recorder rolled, Eddie perfectly executed the mournful country standard “You Win Again.” He played honky-tonk, he played blues, he played rock and roll, and the more he played, the better he got. Eddie “closed the show” with Jerry Lee Lewis’s rocker, “Great Balls of Fire” putting on an exhibition that would have made “The Killer” himself smile. He stood on the piano stool, playing and singing, before kicking it behind behind him while swiping his fingers the length of the keyboard for a rousing finale.
Eddie Burke was back.
He had a new found happiness that reflected in his writing skills and his attitude for weeks. Sadly, however, Eddie’s wife died in late spring. After that, the flame’s brightness kindled from rediscovering his musical talent also faded, and it wasn’t long before Eddie disappeared. He left as mysteriously as he had arrived, leaving his key under the door early one morning with a note apologizing for leaving.
We wondered what happened to Eddie. Someone said they thought it was him they had seen hitchhiking north on 59 toward Carthage. Then one night almost a year later, my phone rang. “Guess who this is,” a familiar voice loudly and cheerfully asked. “I’m in Vegas and I’m playing piano at the Horseshoe.”
In the years that followed, Eddie sent me playbills, cards, photos and entertainment clippings from Las Vegas documenting his return to the entertainment industry. One packet included an autographed picture of a smiling Eddie Burke standing beside Fats Domino at the piano, and a clipping that noted he was opening for the 50s rock and roll singer in the desert city of lights.
Eventually, Eddie’s health began to fail, but he was back on top at the end, a place he hadn’t been since long before that cold winter day in East Texas more than ten years earlier.
Obits seldom address friendship. Perhaps we don’t learn the value of friends until we’ve been up and down, a trip that Eddie made like a yo-yo. He befriended a lady the last few years of his life in Las Vegas, and they married before his death. She called to tell me Eddie had died, and that she was sending the newspaper obituary clipping with a note.
“He loved you Leon,” she wrote. “Some of his happiest times were when he worked for you at the newspaper, the friendship you two shared and allowing him to learn that he could still play the piano.”
Since then, I’ve read many obits and thought, “Wonder what else about that person’s life, like Eddie’s, would be an inspiration for others—if we only knew his or her story.”
Because everyone really does have a story.
— Leon Aldridge
Originally published in the Boerne (Texas) Star – November 1996 • The Center (Texas) Light and Champion – July 2014 • The Mount Pleasant (Texas) Daily Tribune – July 2014