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Regular folks were Florida journalist Al Burt's beat

Al Burt in 1969.

Al Burt in 1969.

I am still grieving for my friend Al Burt, who died last week. He was a marvelous chronicler of Florida culture for the Miami Herald and an inspiration for younger journalists who followed him. He was 81.

He wrote elegant essays about Florida royalty and everyday Floridians during a two-decade stint that began in 1973. He was adept at telling the stories of famous Floridians such as Gov. LeRoy Collins and the Everglades aristocrat Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but he was at his best explaining the thoughts and dreams of mullet fishers and oyster shuckers, moonshiners and Jesus-fearing farmers who planted according to the phases of the moon in the deepest Florida woods. As our state leapt full scale into the Space Age, he wanted to make sure the Mule Age went unforgotten. He called that Florida "The Tropic of Cracker.''

Although he was born in Georgia, he grew up in Jacksonville, graduated from the University of Florida and considered himself a Floridian through and through. He lived in the tiny community of Melrose, his longtime North Florida home, among the pines and the oaks, near where his wife, Gloria, enjoyed feeding her pet egret next to their lake.

Merose was a "piece of old Florida hanging out in the outback of north central Florida,'' Al once wrote. "A good night's sleep there is more likely to be interrupted by the sound of an acorn rattling down a tin roof than by the wail of a police siren.''

The capitol of Melrose is Chiappini's, a grocery that offers beer, beef jerky, fishing worms and expensive bottles of Dom Perignon to its ballcap clientele. I suspect Al's friends are still mourning his passing, but I hope somebody splurges for a bottle of expensive Champagne. Al deserves a front-porch toast.

Before he was a Florida chronicler, he was a Latin-American correspondent for the Herald. On May 6, 1965, as he reported a political uprising in the Dominican Republic, he was wounded accidentally by nervous U.S. Marines.

Crippled, Al spent the rest of his life on crutches or in a wheelchair. When he began writing about Florida, his injuries prevented him from doing much adventurous reporting. He couldn't wade through the inhospitable Fakahatchee Strand and look for a ghost orchid with a biologist, or trot behind a coon hunter and his dogs on the scent. But nobody was better at sitting on a porch and drawing out the story of a bashful Floridian who didn't think what he or she had to say was important.

That was his genius, I think. He avoided celebrity, popular culture, the titillating, the controversial. Let other reporters fight for those stories. Al thought ordinary people were extraordinary. He wanted to write about the poetry of Florida life.

Al was hardly the first writer to discover Florida's charms. William Bartram, who ventured into the territory in 1774, was the state's first interpreter. Later, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Gloria Jahoda wrote about Florida life beyond the hard roads.

When I was a boy, growing up in Eisenhower-era Miami, most newspapers continued the Bartram tradition of covering Florida culture. There was Ernie Lyons in the Stuart News, Dick Bothwell in the St. Petersburg Times, Nixon Smiley in the Herald, and, later, Ray Washington in the Gainesville Sun.

I was a kid sportswriter at the now-out-of-print Miami News when Al began chronicling our state in his weekly column "Around Florida.'' I wanted to be Al Burt when I grew up.

When I started writing about Florida in 1986, I religiously mailed Al my clips hoping for a pat on the head from the old master. He always was encouraging, sometimes about individual stories, but more often about the need for reporters to write about Florida culture as if it were worth writing about. I don't think there are many of us around following Al's lead.

Tonight I'll toast Al on my modest front porch. No Champagne for me, but a frosty glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice should do the trick.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

IN HIS OWN WORDS:

The Tropic of Cracker survives in myth, memory and love of natural Florida. It exists more in the mind than in geography, more in the memory than in the sight, more in attitude than in the encounter. It thrives in the sprinklings of people who still honor a multifaceted heritage rooted in the appreciation of a place and the understanding of customs that harmonized with its peculiar blessings. It tolerates and explains the humanly dimensioned heroes and the heroically flawed rogues who give it voice.

From Tropic of Cracker by Al Burt, published by University Press of Florida. Another Burt collection, Becalmed in the Mullet Latitudes, was published by Florida Classics.

Regular folks were Florida journalist Al Burt's beat 12/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 11, 2008 6:12pm]

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