Thursday, April 21, 2011

Goodbye Chet. The Remembrance of a Remarkable Man

By his friend, Jim Lukaszewski

Thursday, April 21, 2011

From your first little note to me in 1975, complementing something I'd said that was quoted in a PRSA publication, to our last conversation in December of 2010, the power of your friendship, the insight of your thinking, and the profoundly pragmatic advice you so freely offered have guided my career and much of my personal life.

Your sense of yourself was such an interesting part of knowing you. In November of 1990 you opened a presentation to the PRSA Foundation with the phrase, “In the afternoon of my own life . . .” During that presentation you predicted that if your computer was right you would live until approximately 2010. You did a little better than that.

In a private note to me written last year after I had asked you a question and for some guidance, your reply began, "Sure, especially in the evening of my life.” Perhaps this is the most important lesson among the many I learned from you, the power of candor, which I have come to define as “Truth with an attitude, promptly given.”

Photo by Andre Burger, Chet's grandson and

lifelong photography student

When Barbara and I came to work for your firm in the summer of 1986 in New York, you had become an indispensable counselor to both of us, and the stream of complementary notes and letters continued despite the fact that you retired in 1987. I remember asking you at the time, “What did retirement really mean to Chester Burger?” Your response was so interesting. You said, “I will no longer work for money.”

And so you spent the next 24 years as a key civilian advisor for the United States Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, various New York City agencies, the Urban League, and countless other agencies, organizations and individuals who found their way to your door.

Whenever I made an important presentation in the New York area or received some recognition, you were in the audience. I've always felt that describing you as a management consultant, primarily in communications, words you chose, was so sterile and colorless. Your life and your work combined to be the very definition of friendship.

A compliment seemed always to be in the tip of your tongue, or on the point of your pen. In 1992, I sent you a copy of the speech I was about to present. As always, you combined instructive and constructive advice with the motivation to get something important done.

You said, “Once again, you have written a solid and thoughtful analysis of the problem and what can be done about it. It is very good. As we discussed, I still believe your speeches will be improved by more anecdotes and company names when possible and appropriate (but always in a positive and sympathetic way).

You continued, “Over the years, I have read a lot of peoples speeches. Yours consistently are among the very best because of the clarity of your content and your analyses of the problem.” Chet, you always had a useful suggestion tied to a compliment.

On another occasion, after having just arrived in New York, I discovered that because you walked to work everyday to 171 Madison, you arrived about an hour before the rest of us. So, my wife Barbara and I would get up early, catch a train from Westchester to get to the office early enough to talk with you almost everyday. I remember a great many of those conversations and have told stories about them and you for decades.

One of these early morning stories was about my attempts to get on the calendar of a very important New York City executive. I had prepared a letter of introduction which included part of my resume, part of what I wanted to talk to him about, and some lame language about the goals of the conversation, all in just under two pages, single spaced. You examined the draft, then looked thoughtfully at me and said, essentially the following:

“Why don't you tell him that I suggested that you and he could both benefit from having a brief discussion. Then, assure him that within the first 20 minutes he will be able to determine, from his own perspective, whether any further discussion might be useful.”

That is exactly what I did. I got the appointment, and a new long-time client and friend.

Another of my favorite stories is about you and one of your clients. You were invited in to analyze a set of issues and make recommendations for a company. In this particular case, you heard nothing from your client for a very long time. Your curiosity was getting the best of you, so you sent the CEO an amazingly short letter. The letter consisted of the salutation, a single question mark, and your signature. About one week later, as you told the story, you received a letter in response to yours. The letter opened, "Dear Chet,” followed by a single exclamation point (meaning they had taken your advice) and the CEO's signature.

So much of your advice remains clearly in my mind. In the middle of a discussion of some problem you said, “Tacticians are a dime or less a dozen in any profession. If you truly want to provide value and have real influence, help others achieve their objectives from their perspectives. Think up, start your thinking as far above the tactics as you can.”

Your rule for vivid expression, “Always say things and write things as simply as possible. Shorter sentences and colorful verbs always improve understanding and readership,” has guided my own style from the earliest days of our relationship.

You made me a disciple of your devotion to positive, constructive, sensible language. You taught me the destructive and distractive power of “I.” and you taught me the true power of being a strategic thinker, the key to be invited to counsel top management.

During the first Gulf War, in 1991, long before I knew how deeply you were engaged in advising our military leaders, I drafted an article and submitted it to the New York Times, “News is the enemy's greatest weapon.” At that time there was a great debate raging, as there has been during every war since, about secrecy, disinformation and delaying coverage of significant military events for security reasons. I sent it to you for comment and once again your insights were so powerful.

In May of 1991 to wrote me:

“Your piece for the Times is most thoughtful. You make many good points, specifically (among others) that truth delayed is not truth denied, the necessity for a commander to be able to communicate effectively, and your emphasis that war is not democracy (though war can be waged for preserving or establishing democracy).”

You continued, “There is no place where I disagree with you. But you make me wonder about two points: 1.) Disinformation is an important military tool. General Schwarzkopf spread advance reports of plans to invade Kuwait from the sea. This deception worked. Disinformation is essential. I would like you to write and speak about the “dissonance” between the needs of the military to tell the truth and at the same time, the genuine need to lie.”

You concluded, “2.) In war, there will always be conflict between military organizations and democratic societies. America has had both for 200 years. It is an interesting point. I would like to see you discuss this.”

It has been such a privilege to have this body of correspondence between friends for the last 30 years. It’s even more remarkable, since most of it has occurred during your retirement.

During our last lengthy face-to-face conversation in November 2009, talking about your life, your career, and your accomplishments, you made the most interesting observation, “The only thing I truly planned for and did intentionally was to start Chester Burger & Co. in 1964. Everything else that has happened was beyond my control, fortunate coincidences, lucky breaks, or just being in the right place.”

During this conversation you told some of your favorite stories. You observed that there is a statue of Nathan Hale, the famous American Revolutionary War patriot, located near City Hall in downtown Manhattan, although now inaccessible due to security precautions. This statue carries an inscription of Hale’s famous statement as the British were about execute him for spying, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

You went on to talk about the fact that there are two duplicates of this statute and its inscription, one in the lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia and one on the Yale University campus in Connecticut. But then you mentioned there is actually a fourth lesser known version of this statue that resides in the Yale Club in the City of New York. “It’s smaller, but a replica,” you said, and carries only the simple description, “Nathan Hale, Class of 1773.” You were always a master at identifying important though seemingly inconsequential nuances of life, history and relationships.

Even last year, as you knew that your life was concluding, you managed to be on conference calls with Pentagon officials and commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But perhaps the most profound thing you said to me, which has turned out to be true in my career, as it was in yours, is the reality in public relations that, “Anything you learn today will have some future value that you cannot foresee at the time.” This to me is the definition of a life in public relations.

It's pretty lucky for all of us that you were so lucky in your life. You leave a legacy of civility; of intelligent discussions of issues and questions that matter beyond the tactical work of everyday communication; of helping two generations of leaders and aspiring leaders in the private sector, in government, and the military to lead with courage, integrity and conviction based on simple, sensible, constructive and positive principles.

We all have the legacy of friendship and accomplishment you shared throughout your remarkable life. Rest easy dear friend. The evening of your life, as you forecasted 11 years earlier, has come to a close.

With enduring affection and admiration,

Jim Lukaszewski



Blogger kenwork57 said...

That was a very moving tribute to a true PR legend. How can I share this post, Jim?
Ken Jacobs
Jacobs Communications Consulting

April 21, 2011 at 6:40 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Jim - this is a great post and tribute to Chet. Your tone and admiration was notably passionate when speaking of Chet in the past, and some of the teachings/quotes you've laid out are absolutely timeless.


May 2, 2011 at 2:33 PM  
Blogger Jim Lukaszewski said...

Thank you Ken and Greg so much for writing.

Chester Burger was a truly remarkable man. I have now heard from many who also knew him, and many who didn't know him but now wish they had had the opportunity. Yet, there is so much that was left unsaid in my letter about him.

We had our last conversation together in early December 2010, and we both knew it. He knew he was dying, and Barbara and I were leaving New York for Minnesota in a few days. It was a wonderful conversation. I had reviewed my Chester Burger correspondence files before we got together. More treasure. In 1975 he wrote a guide for speechwriters at AT&T. It is one of the most remarkably clear examples of his ability to teach, to illustrate, and to set an example. I hope the family can publish it at some point. It is as valuable and powerful today as it was in 1975.

He gave a wonderful speech to women communicators in 1984 in which he forecast the dominance of our profession by women, and at the same time provided extraordinarily useful information about having impact and influence in the business world that would still be run mostly by men. He was always talking about the future.

Among the coolest thing he ever did was to purchase two passenger tickets aboard the first civilian, tourist rocket shuttle to the moon, then being offered by Pan American Airways. He told me that his ticket money, $25,000 per person was refunded several years ago with the settlement of some litigation involving the Pan Am acquisition.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chet was that he knew he was a great man, he absolutely had to know. But, as I have tried to convey, he carried himself with such grace, charm, and genuine interest in others, you had to wonder why he was taking the time to talk to you. He loved to remember everyone’s birthday.

He did remind me, during that last conversation that his papers reside at the Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin. And, that he hoped, “sometime after I'm long gone, some enterprising and curious practitioner or student will go through those papers to see if anything worthwhile remains.”

I hope so too.


May 2, 2011 at 2:49 PM  

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