Older city hall veterans certainly remember John Burkhart, who served as the city of Toledo’s chief legal counsel from 1964 to 1980. A good lawyer and a good guy, Mr. Burkhart was something of a character in the Safety Building, which was the city’s headquarters before Government Center was built.
I’m happy to report that he is still a character at the assisted living center in Perrysburg where he lives. Now 91 years old, Mr. Burkhart and his wit remain intact. It’s on display in frequent letters he sends to friends, family, and former work associates, including retired Lucas County Juvenile Court Judge Andy Devine, who himself turned 91 last December.
Mr. Burkhart lost his wife, Blanche, last year, but his spirit remains strong. He brags that the Burkharts were always the envy of the other residents at the center because they had “his and hers walkers.”
He doesn’t drive anymore, but his walker gets him where he has to go these days. “I call it my Studebaker,” he says.
I covered city hall, and occasionally Mr. Burkhart, when I was a young reporter in the 1960s. Years later, he would send me letters to the editor for the Readers’ Forum that were as funny as he is.
Let me share my favorite stories from Mr. Burkhart.
First, he loves to talk about the time in the late 1960s, during the administration of Mayor William Ensign, when City Council was pondering gun-control legislation aimed at getting handguns off Toledo streets. As the person who drafted the ordinance for council’s consideration, he attended a public hearing on the matter.
Among the residents who showed up to be heard on the volatile issue was a woman who brought her dog, a huge Great Dane, to council chambers. “That dog was bigger than a pony,” Mr. Burkhart remembers.
At one point in the proceedings, the dog allegedly committed that greatest of public faux pas — it audibly discharged a malodorous quantity of gas, an air biscuit of such majestic proportions that had the Safety Building been so equipped, oxygen masks would have dropped from the ceiling. This was long before the smoking ban, so had someone lit a Chesterfield, we’d still be holding memorial services to honor the dead.
The odor filled council chambers, prompting Mayor Ensign to order Sergeant at Arms Leo Wonderly to open the windows. The mayor also issued a decree: no more dogs at council meetings.
The woman had brought the dog to the hearing, she explained, to help make her argument that gun controls, in her case, were irrelevant. She insisted that she didn’t need the added protection of a gun because, with her dog at her side, nobody would dare approach her with sinister motives. The dog then proved her point.
Part of me wonders whether the dog was the culprit or, unable to protest its innocence, only a helpless victim that took the fall for the real perpetrator. I’m betting the latter. I’ve found that dogs, as a general rule, are far better mannered than people.
Story number two: In 1967, the Burkharts were invited to sail aboard the freighter S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, my old ship, as guest passengers. Their traveling companions somehow persuaded the captain that the Burkharts wanted to get married and that he should marry them.
So to their surprise and delight, John and Blanche, already happily married, were wed once again on the Fitzgerald. However, Mr. Burkhart realized something wasn’t quite right. The “bible” in the captain’s hands was a copy of the Guide to Great Lakes Shipping.
“But we got a nice certificate to hang on the wall at home,” recalls Mr. Burkhart. “When people saw that, they got this strange look. We already had kids.”
I was a crew member on the Fitzgerald in 1963. The Fitzgerald sank in 1975, eight years after the Burkharts’ trip, in a violent storm on Lake Superior. For Mr. Burkhart, however, memories of the Big Fitz are good ones.
Finally, Mr. Burkhart recently reminded me of an incident I thought was only myth, but which he insists is true.
A street evangelist was preaching at the top of his lungs on the sidewalk in front of the Safety Building. Mr. Burkhart’s office window was open and the noise was becoming bothersome.
The city’s lawyer didn’t feel the need to be saved at that moment, but he did feel the need to get some work done. Finally, he’d had enough.
He went to the window and shouted down: “Hey, you! Listen up. This is God! Go over to The Blade and preach. They need all the help they can get!”
Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org