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Terry Burt: A true community leader

Published 8:28am Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The true leaders in a community are rarely elected officials. They are only occasionally school administrators or noted pastors.

Usually the true leaders of a community are regular citizens, perhaps with a high-profile job or hobby, who simply take the time to show they care about people. Monday I attended the funeral of one such man.

My readers in other communities will have to forgive me. The loss of Elmore County High football coach Terry Burt was very much the focus of the weekend in my hometown of Eclectic. The traits that made Coach Burt a special person and a true community leader are timeless. I have no doubt all communities, large and small, have been blessed by men and women with similar traits through the years.

You probably couldn’t have fit another soul in the Baptist church Monday morning. The attendance crossed all barriers: age, race, income.

Coach Burt lead the ECHS Panthers for almost three decades. He turned the little hamlet into an unlikely football powerhouse. Three state titles. Multiple Coach of the Year honors.

When I was growing up, Eclectic was spoken of in hushed tones during football conversations. Not even the largest schools in the area wanted to see the Panthers on their schedule.

Coach Burt took the sidelines in Eclectic in a turbulent time in Alabama, as the Civil Rights Movement was hitting its stride and desegregation was finally beginning in school systems large and small.

Many communities saw ugly confrontations during this time, as white and black students were pressed into the same classrooms and locker rooms in an atmosphere of anger and stubborn hatred. Yet for the most part, Eclectic was peaceful.

Many voices these last few days have given credit for that to Coach Burt. He and his assistants — one black, one white — would not tolerate divisions on the football field. They treated every player or student as the person he or she was, regardless of skin color. Coach Burt, Coach Abraham Brown and Coach Tony McGhee created a different kind of atmosphere in Eclectic, not by preaching but through strident example.

That unity led to a pair of state championships in the 1970s and another in the 1980s. Two of his assistants later became administrators at the school Coach Burt loved. The three men had a profound influence, even over a bookish band nerd like myself.

Any friend was welcome at Burt’s supper table. After his retirement he would hold court during ball games at the south end zone of the stadium named after him. He enjoyed the company of every student, and would often recall the names of students he hadn’t seen in decades.

Strong, adult men — police, construction workers, soldiers — visited the school Friday and wept at Coach Burt’s memory, the school’s current principal told me. Those who gave eulogies at the funeral spoke of a man who always had time when they needed him.

One former player who has matured into a powerful evangelist spoke of Coach Burt convincing him to play football. Primus Brown didn’t have a way to get home from practice, so Coach Burt drove him home every day. He couldn’t afford the snazzy letterman’s jacket so important to a varsity player’s status.

“Merry Christmas, knothead,” Primus tearfully recalled the coach saying as he draped the jacket over his shoulders one December.

Doubtless Coach Burt had similar gifts for dozens of other players. But he didn’t call the newspaper or issue a press release. Needs were just met, quietly and without fanfare.

It seems every day we lose another of those cherished community leaders, the strong men and women willing to devote endless time and energy to something bigger than themselves.

For the sake of our communities, I hope future generations are taking notes.

 

David D. Goodwin writes a weekly political column for The Wetumpka Herald.

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