The Last Forty Years–and the Future
I joined the staff of TEXAS MONTHLY on October 1, 1974, and after much consideration, I have decided to retire in March. I have had a rich and rewarding forty-year career as senior executive editor of TEXAS MONTHLY and have been enabled by my editors to do what I love most: cover Texas politics. I will continue to be engaged with TEXAS MONTHLY on several fronts, including coverage of the 84th Legislature. But the time has come for Sarah and me to move on to the next chapter of our lives.
I am proud of the fact that my colleagues and I created one of the most impactful stories that has influenced Texas journalism: the compilation of the “Ten Best and Ten Worst Texas Legislators.” I am grateful to my incredibly talented colleagues who joined me in covering the Legislature over the years, to my editors who have enabled me to pursue the fascinating world of Texas politics, and above all to the readers of BurkaBlog. Thank you for reading.
If you’d like to see the email that my editor, Brian Sweany, sent to the staff this morning, keep reading after the jump:
I find it hard to believe that I am typing these words, but I have the unhappy duty of letting you know that the end of a defining era at Texas Monthly is fast upon us: Paul Burka, our senior executive editor and the dean of the Capitol press corps, has decided to retire on March 1. This is difficult both professionally and personally: Paul is one of the most important writers/editors/bloggers/wise men to have ever worked at the magazine, and I’m confident that no one will ever rival the body of work he published over his forty-year career. But perhaps most important, he is one of the smartest, most supportive colleagues I’ve ever worked with, and he helped train many of the writers and editors on staff today. Texas Monthly will not be the same without him.
Paul’s byline first appeared in the magazine in the March 1974 issue under the pedestrian-sounding “Contest, page 112,” a back-page puzzle he wrote that challenged readers to pen limericks with a focus on “an aspect of Texas life.” The following month he published his first story for TM, a column called “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” about the closing of Clark Field, UT’s old baseball stadium. Here’s his opening: “The big first baseman watched the curve ball break across the plate and knew he was out. He even started to leave the plate, and news reports recorded that he smiled when the umpire gave him a reprieve.” That batter, it is later revealed, was Lou Gehrig, who on the next pitch hit “the longest home run ever hit by man since the beginning of baseball.” Even in 1974, with that terrific style and graceful pacing, Paul Burka was Paul Burka.
He joined the staff full-time on October 1, 1974, as an associate editor and soon emerged as an unparalleled force in the editorial department, whose deep love for the state meant he had an opinion on just about everything: politics, barbecue, the Houston Astros, criminal justice, the best spot in Big Bend, the problem with the Southwest Conference, great Texas authors, and Galveston—always Galveston. (Paul is BOI and proud of it.) He went on to write more classic TM stories than he probably wants to admit, including a National Magazine Award for reporting for his two-part story on Clinton Manges in 1984, which I once attempted to diagram as an intern.
There’s also this profile of John Connally, from 1979, which remains one of my all-time favorites political pieces; his cover story christening the Suburban the “National Car of Texas” in 1986; his spot-on examination of the struggles of the Stoner ranching family from Uvalde from 1996; this emotional and unexpected essay about his father in 2008; and the most-moving BTL ever written, about the Bonfire tragedy and the A&M-Longhorn football game that followed. Of course his greatest legacy is as the single most consequential observer of state politics that Texas has ever produced. Paul is a legend at the Capitol, and I’ve seen it first-hand while walking with him through the hallways: people turn and look when he passes by. I’ve always thought that the best seat in the House (or the Senate) is next to him because he understood everything that was happening on the floor, often better than the members themselves. I would make the joke that sitting next to him was like watching a pop-up video of the Lege, because he would explain the history of a bill and then offer up a line like, “This reminds of the time when Gib Lewis was Speaker and . . . “
Paul took the idea of the Best/Worst Legislators list and transformed it into an indispensable way to hold lawmakers accountable—the good, the bad, and the ugly. And despite all of the changes to political coverage over the ensuing decades, Best/Worst maintains its currency because of his knowledge, fairness, and deep belief in what is good for Texas. For the younger generation, Paul is known as the greatest blogger this magazine has ever had, an unlikely occurrence that even makes him chuckle. Truly, no other writer on staff has so smoothly and wisely embraced the web or had a larger presence there. Ever since its launch, Burkablog has been one of the most popular pages on our website.
On a personal note, I first met Paul way back in 1997, when I was a newly minted copy editor and I was working on Jan Reid’s piece about the Kickapoo Indians of Eagle Pass. Paul was the editor of that story, and I’ve been learning from him ever since. Over the past several years, we have worked closely together, and I’ve tried to soak up as much of his knowledge as I could. Covering the Lege with Paul has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my career.
Even in retirement, however, Paul will still be part of Texas Monthly, and I fully expect to seek his advice and counsel on the Lege as the session continues and we get ready to publish the 2015 installment of Best and Worst (just try to keep him out of the Capitol while the Lege is in session). Burkablog will continue to bear his name, and he will continue to contribute as he sees fit. And it won’t surprise you to know that Paul wants to take on new writing projects, including perhaps a book on the history of TM.
I will let you know about our plans to celebrate Paul and his career at a later date, but please join me in thanking him for everything he had done and everything he means to us.