Newspaper editor Burton Swope died Oct. 18 in Palm Desert at age 68.
Cancer took him.
Journalists — including me — who honed their skills under Burt’s tutelage are grieving the loss of a friend.
Burt had a long career in newspapers and served as the top editor of the Visalia Times-Delta in the 1990s.
He believed passionately in the power of journalism to make a difference in a community. He believed in getting the facts straight, writing with clarity, and holding the powerful accountable.
He also had a wicked sense of humor.
Improbably, after leaving Visalia for the Ventura County Star, he won the California Lotto jackpot — $3.4 million.
Former Times-Delta lifestyle editor Nancy Loliva telephoned Burt upon hearing the news.
“He recognized my voice and started laughing,” she said. “He said, ‘No, I’m not going to retire. No, I don’t know if I’m going to write the great American novel. No, you can’t borrow any money!’ ”
He did retire, but didn’t stop there. He took up oil painting and produced respectable artwork, which can be seen at www.burtonswope.com.
Born in Fresno and raised in Arizona, he joined the Army after high school. He served in the 30th Artillery Brigade on Okinawa and with the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington.
He majored in art at Fresno City College and journalism at Fresno State, where he was editor of the Daily Collegian.
He advocated equal opportunity for minorities and women, and for gay rights, his obituary said.
His first reporting gig was at KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. He joined the Hanford Sentinel as farm editor and Corcoran reporter, and worked at the Casa Grande (Arizona) Dispatch and Reno Gazette-Journal.
He covered murder trials and board of supervisors meetings, wildfires and earthquakes, Ronald Reagan’s first run for the GOP presidential nomination, President Jimmy Carter’s visit to the San Joaquin Valley, and interviewed Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and Red Skelton.
When I posted the news about Burt’s death on Facebook, tributes poured in.
“Great fellow and fine journalist,” said Royal Calkins, former Monterey Herald editor and ex-Fresno Bee reporter.
“Burt was passionate about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted and detested hypocrisy of any kind,” said Paul Hurley, retired editorial page editor at the Times-Delta.
Burt was a natural newsroom leader.
“I admired the heck out of him,” said former Times-Delta staffer Tom Bray, now managing editor of the Press-Enterprise in Riverside.
“No matter what was fashionable in the industry, no matter what the directive from the corporate folks or the hip trend from journo-pundits, folks in the Visalia newsroom wanted to know Burton’s take.”
He was like a character in a movie, Bray said: “White shirt, sleeves rolled up, not-always-tidy beard, barking out feedback, grousing about what the governments types were up to and occasional bouts of ‘pipe down!’ to listen to something humming on the police scanner.”
When I covered City Hall for the Times-Delta, I appeared on a public affairs cable TV show. The moderator asked for my opinion about a local controversy. I said I didn’t have an opinion.
Burt nodded his head in approval. “That’s exactly right,” he said.
He could be abrupt with people who called to complain.
“I learned some good skills from Burt, including how to slam a phone without breaking it,” said Ron Trujillo, a former T-D reporter and ex-Fresno Bee business editor.
Retired Visalia Times-Delta publisher Janet Sanford, who promoted Burt to the top spot, said Burt had the right stuff.
“There’s something about some journalists,” she said. “You don’t have to talk to them more than a few minutes and you knew.”
Burt is survived by his wife Joan, son Joe of Antelope, daughter Janelle Hamilton-Swope of Fresno, two grandchildren and a great-grandson.
A showing of his paintings at the Palm Desert Community Gallery will be Nov. 17, followed by a celebration of life at the Swope home. Donations in his memory can be made to the American Cancer Society.