Alex Burton, longtime radio and television newsman, died Thursday of complications of prostrate cancer at Treemont Healthcare & Rehab Center in Dallas. He was 80.
An adaptable survivor of ever-changing radio and television formats, Mr. Burton had a long and diverse career as a broadcast a reporter, narrator, pundit and general observer of the human condition.
âIâve always believed if you canât be better, youâd better be differentâ"and he was different,â said longtime friend and former coworker Bob Shaw of Dallas.
Mr. Burton remained ready for prime time to the very end of his life, even offering his opinion of the state of broadcast journalism from the bed where was confined by cancer.
âNews would be a hell of a lot better these days if management would stay out of the way,â he said. âI donât think they allow the newsmen to use their imaginations. Thatâs a shame, I know they have something to say.â
Mr. Burton seemed to have a nose for opportunity. His public persona was forged when he added a $5 a night stint to his duties at WBAP-TV, now KXAS-TV, (Channel 5.)
âThe midnight news was the thing that made my name,â he said. âBy the time the midnight news came around, I was pretty well bored and I tried to perk it up a bit.â
By chance, a plant â" a prop left on the set from a commercial â" became his sidekick. He named the plant Arthur.
âThe floor man was going to take him away, and I said âAh, just leave him there,ââ he recalled. âI didnât think there was anybody out there anyway.â
Mr. Burton developed a following reading the news to Arthur.
âI never checked, but I always suspected they paid Arthur more,â he said in 1983.
Mr. Shaw said the program is still a vivid memory.
âHe would be sitting there in this chair with a plant and reams of copy off the wire machines,â Mr. Shaw recalled. âHe would say, âAh, you wouldnât be interested in thatâ and throw it aside. People remember that to this day.â
Mr. Burton was born in Hanna, Alberta, Canada, the first member of his family to be delivered in a hospital. He spent his childhood in the hamlet of Stanmore, and lived in Consort, Alberta, before his family moved to Victoria, British Columbia, here he graduated from high school in 1950.
âI went directly into life,â he said late last month.
He studied drama at the University of Albertaâs Banff School of Fine Arts and joined a amateur theater group in Calgary.
âI thought about becoming a serious actor, but I discovered I couldnât remember my lines and everybody elseâs lines at the same time,â he said. âIt kind of put the cap on being a dramatic actor.â
Mr. Burton worked in radio in Canada before taking a broadcasting job in Corpus Christi in 1961. He lost his first job in Texas radio after reporting the lack of sanitary restroom facilities at the station. Sulfurous water interfered with bacteria in the stationâs septic tank, which often backed up into the facilities.
âThe station fixed the restroom, opened it up and fired me,â he said. âAs a going away present, the employees presented me the golden plunger award. I was very proud of the honor and still hold it dear.â
There may be sparkplugs that havenât been fired as many times as Mr. Burton, something he took in stride.
âI got fired for insubordination, I suppose,â he said. âI never got fired for doing a bad job. I got let go lots of times for being a snot.â
Mr. Burton worked at a radio stations in the Rio Grande Valley and a San Antonio television station before he joined WBAP-TV as a reporter and cameraman in 1962.
He anchored Channel 5âs 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts, positions he held until he was replaced by future network icon, Bob Schieffer, in 1966.
He continued doing the midnight news at WBAP-TV and acting as a liaison to Dallas.
One night, Mr. Burton awoke in his apartment, realizing his newscast was to start.
âI knew it was all over for me so I just went back to sleep, prepared to face the music in the morning,â he said in 1983.
To his surprise, there was no fallout the next day.
âNobody ever said a word,â he said. âAnd I got paid for the show. To this day, I still owe Chanel 5 five bucks.â
From 1968 to 1970, he was news director of Channel 39 in Dallas
He joined KRLD-AM (1080) as a reporter and commentator. He also was the weekend anchor for KRLD-TV, now KDFW-TV (Channel 4.)
He was a police and courthouse reporter at KRLD-AM, where he also delivered daily commentaries.
A 1984 collection of his commentaries Just One Kiss, Baby: The Alex Burton Papers (Eakin) was warmly received in a book review by then-Dallas Morning News writing coach Paula LaRocque.
âOneâs assessment of Burton at a given moment seems to depend more upon whether one agrees with him that upon how he presents his case,â Ms. LaRocque wrote. âBut whether we agree with him or not, Alex Burton is not dull â" on the radio or in print.â
She also noted that his book âreminds us that few can out-smart-aleck smart Alex when he puts his mind to it, but we also see his softer side in this collection.â
Mr. Burton wrote three books, which he sold to three different publishers.
âI kept selling to a different publisher every time â" because the other publishers never come back,â he said.
Mr. Burtonâs commentaries often involved philosophical conversations with a pigeon.
âThe pigeon could say things that werenât allowed, then I could straighten him out,â he said.
Mr. Burton was with KRLD for 20 years until his contract was not renewed in September 1989.
What did he like best about his commentaries?
âNo body bothered me,â he said. âDick Wheeler, who was my boss, never told me what to do, what to say or what to think.â
Mr. Burton joined WBAP-AM radio in 1990, where he did commentaries until the Fort Worth station picked up Rush Limbaughâs syndicated talk show in October 1992.
He resumed a late-night talk program on KRLD and had a half-hour talk show on KDFI-TV, now KTXA-TV (Channel 21) before he retired from daily broadcasting in 1994.
Throughout his career, Mr. Burton did announcing and narration many clients, including PBS.
âHe was just everywhere,â Mr. Shaw said. âHe was an unusual case of a man who became really well known, but was not famous.â
Mr. Shaw often found his friend on early morning public television programs as he traveled.
âI worked in 37 states and almost every where I went, I would turn on the local PBS station in the morning and there he would be,â Mr. Shaw said.
Mr. Burton said he âgot calls from Norway, England and an aircraft carrier in the Mediterraneanâ from people who had seen his work far from Dallas.
He also was a community TV producer and served on the board of Community Access TV in Dallas. He was active with the Reading and Radio Resource, services for the blind, and was the voice of 90-second Healthwatch features on the ABC Satellite Network.
âTheyâd hand me a script and Iâd read it and theyâd hand me a check and Iâd go away,â Mr. Burton said.
Mr. Burtonâs semi-retirement included a career as director of broadcast services for Halcyon Associates Inc. in Dallas.
He also carved bowls.
âI won three prizes at the State Fair,â he said. âNot the best of show or anything like that, but ribbons â" first, second and thirds. I won three first prizes as a wood turner with my bowls.â
He studied political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he was named a Distinguished Alumni in 1981.
He was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2002.
In 2011 The Dallas Presss Club honored him as a Living Legend of North Texas Journalism.
Mr. Burton is survived by his wife, Mary Jane Tokar of Dallas; two daughters, Mila Isabella of Dallas and Sylvia Mansfield in Los Angeles.
Memorials may be made to the Press Club of Dallas Scholarship Fund in care of E.M. Duvall & Associates, 329 Oaks Trail, No. 190 Garland, Texas 75043.
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