Al Burt never tired of the people of Florida, from the Baker County brothers who refused to use electricity to the Stuart man who helped build a reef of, among other things, toilet bowls.
He chronicled them all in the pages of The Miami Herald.
A legendary reporter whose work included several books, an Ernie Pyle Award and being shot by the U.S. Marines while on assignment in the Dominican Republic, Burt died Saturday in Jacksonville after a battle with chronic illness and heart trouble. He was 81.
”He was the best all-around newspaper man I’ve ever worked with. He could do just about anything,” said Ed Storin, a close friend of Burt’s who retired as a Herald associate managing editor in 1991.
“He could tell a great story.”
Burt was born Sept. 11, 1927, near Athens, Ga. A few years later, his family moved to Jacksonville, where he grew up, said his brother, Dr. James Burt of Jacksonville.
As a teenager, he suffered from chronic pain that kept him from getting around well, James Burt said, but he loved sports. So after studying at the University of Florida, Al Burt joined The Jacksonville Journal as a sports writer.
He spent a few years in Jacksonville, a few more at UPI in Atlanta, then joined The Miami Herald around 1955, first in the sports department, then the Broward County bureau.
Burt became an assistant city editor before joining the Latin America department in about 1960 — an assignment that led to adventures abroad and the Ernie Pyle Award in 1961 for stories about Cuba. The annual award recognizes human-interest writing.
”I remember him bringing over all his dirty clothes for my wife and me to salvage. I had never seen such a mess in my life,” James Burt said. “And all these wonderful stories about what he had seen and done.”
On May 6, 1965, while on assignment in Santo Domingo, he and photographer Doug Kennedy were shot by U.S. Marines.
The pair were traveling in a car and heading back to a Marine checkpoint, James Burt said. As the car backed up, the Marines got spooked and opened fire on the car, striking Al Burt and Kennedy multiple times.
”I always felt a little guilty. We knew both he and Kennedy would work hard to get the story,” former Herald Executive Editor Larry Jinks said. “And that’s exactly what they were doing when they were shot.”
The shooting soured Burt’s taste for correspondent work, his brother said. It also led to an appropriations bill in Congress that in 1974 would have given Burt and Kennedy money for their injuries.
President Gerald Ford vetoed the bill. Burt said the veto made him a lifelong Democrat.
After he healed, Burt moved to Hartwell, Ga., where he worked at a newspaper and later married his wife, Gloria.
But he was drawn back to Florida, and in 1973 started chronicling people and places as a roving columnist from seemingly every corner of the state. His column, Around Florida, was a regular feature of The Herald‘s Sunday magazine, Tropic, and later appeared in the state section.
He was, as Storin put it, “Mr. Florida, as far as The Herald was concerned.”
In about 1995, Burt fully retired from The Herald. He continued lecturing and writing books about Florida.
Through it all, he loved newspapering.
As he told Herald reporter Michael Browning for a profile in 1996:
“Except for the ministry, possibly, I can think of few other pursuits that embody greater opportunity to wreak well-being upon the land . . . Ministers are luckier than newspapermen. Almost nobody expects all of them to have a full head of hair and to get every blessed one of us into heaven.”
Burt is survived by his wife, Gloria. Funeral arrangements are pending.