Remembering Charles Burch

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(Host) Commentator Caleb Daniloff reflects on the dynamic life of longtime Burlington businessman Charles Burch recently killed in a bicycle accident.

(Daniloff) If the saying, you can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps, holds true, then the crowd at the memorial service for longtime Burlington businessman Charles Burch last week told quite a story.

It was standing-room-only for the eccentric advertiser. The eclectic mix of mourners included clients, recovering alcoholics, photographers, therapists, martial artists, actresses, young mothers and businessmen. Among the speakers an ex-wife, a landlord, a tai chi master, the CEO of an international chandelier company, and a one-time Bowery bum whose face still bore the scars of addiction. All of them dear friends.

Charles was killed in a bicycle accident in Burlington. There had been news footage of his crumpled bike , an eyewitness account of a man riding in a daze. Those who knew Charles knew he could get lost in thought, his mind constantly tilling the soil, turning over a problem or idea. Charles was my boss, and one of the most creative thinkers I’ve ever known.

Over the last few months, Charles had undergone two operations to burn cancer from his liver. He’d already survived pancreatic cancer, and didn’t let these latest procedures slow him down. On the way to one client presentation, he insisted I feel the baseball-sized welt on his side. In that brief touch, he brought it all home for me, life’s struggles and triumphs. He was a master at animating reality, bringing life to life.

A high school dropout, Charles was a voracious reader and became a master wordsmith. And working with him always meant an education in writing, in persuasion, in life. Our brief time together was worth more than any MFA.

Charles also loved jazz and brought that same spontaneous, free-flowing energy to his thinking. His vitality led to a richness of experience. He’d hung out with Thelonius Monk, met with Shoichi Yokoi, the Japanese officer who fought on years after WWII had ended. Robert Altman filmed one of his weddings.

After rising to the top in Chicago and New York advertising, Charles moved to Vermont in the mid 70s, and started an agency in Burlington. By this time, he’d overcome a drinking and drug problem, and became a cherished friend in Burlington’s recovery community. The day of his service, a chair at his daily AA meeting sat empty in his honor, absence signifying presence.

When the news of Charles’ death broke over us that morning, I sought comfort in the poetry of his refusing cancer a victory, that he died living life, body hunched over his bike, leaning into the wind.

The next day, a co-worker and I walked to the fatal intersection. Police tape still flapped from a sign pole. Litter had gathered along the curb. We crossed the grey asphalt, trying to determine where the SUV had struck him, where he may have landed. When we came upon blood stains, it didn’t seem to matter anymore.

It felt like such a mundane place to die. Then it struck me. Even in death, Charles had carried out one of his greatest tasks, the revelation of inherent drama, that poignancy can be teased from even the blandest swatches of reality. One had only to look for it. We lay a rose at the site and headed back to the office. I was honored to have known him.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist.

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