Final Deadline

David Burgin is legendary as a rough-and-tumble newspaper editor. But the legend is full of astonishing contradictions, and its last chapter may include the outcome of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by one of his proteges at the Oakland Tribune.

Two years later, Burgin found himself riding in an elevator with the publisher of the Washington Daily News. "I was brash," he says. "I told him his paper had a lousy sports section. He asked me what I would do, and I started ticking things off. Soon I found myself on a career path I'd never expected." Sports editor of the Daily News, 1968-70.

There, he says, he hit the heights. He wrote a series of columns on the system that kept blacks from becoming pro football quarterbacks, or from attaining too much presence in other professional sports.

"I got a letter from [a black activist] informing me that there was going to be a boycott [by African-American athletes] at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City," Burgin says. Burgin wrote a column breaking the news that black athletes would protest at the Olympics -- long before medal-winning African-Americans raised their fists in black power salutes during the games' award ceremonies.

In 1970, he took a job at the San Francisco Examiner as sports editor. Almost immediately, a rift developed between him and the staff. Burgin blames himself. "I had my butt handed to me," he says. "I was too young. I was too brash and cocky. I'm not like that. I'm more to the shy side. I know that's hard for people to understand."

His reputation for rash, unexamined decisions grew. One day around Christmastime, Burgin noticed that packages were piling up for something called "Nell's Kids." Burgin knew that golf writer Nelson Cullenward had several kids, and thought he was taking gifts from sports teams. Burgin had the packages hauled away to the Salvation Army.

Years later, Burgin and Cullenward ended up at the same banquet. From the dais, he could hear the master of ceremonies continually refer to "Nell's Kids." For the first time, Burgin learned that Cullenward had adopted eight kids from a South Bay orphanage, for which he collected Christmas gifts every year.

"I took all those meals and toys heading for the orphanage and threw them out," Burgin says. "I regret it to this day. You get a reputation. A lot of people haven't forgiven me for that, and I don't blame them."

Burgin was saved from further local infamy when the Washington Star called and offered him a job as sports editor in 1972. His proudest achievement there was editing a series about homosexuality and sports. "It blew the lid off everything. There wasn't a column in the country that didn't have something to say about it. It was landmark, absolutely landmark," he says.

The next year Burgin was made metro editor, and suddenly he couldn't blow the lid off of a can of soda pop. Watergate had broken into the open, and the Star was choking on the dust of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times.

Oddly, this status gives Burgin pleasure; he sees it as part of his legend. "I had a two-year lesson in local reporting handed out by the Washington Post. We got our asses kicked. It was painful. It was a drubbing. Long story short, I had a ringside seat to Watergate."

It was in Washington that Burgin first met his future patron, Dean Singleton. The owners of the Star had just sold out to a rich Texas businessman named Joe Albritton. Burgin was walking down the hall at the Star building, and he caught the eye of another Texan, this one baby-faced. "So I took him around for a tour," Burgin recalls. "I guess I was in a good mood."

Singleton, all of 24, was at the Star looking for a job. He got one as a gopher. "But Dean Singleton ain't no gopher," Burgin says. Or, as Burgin told the East Bay Express in April 1994, "He's as slick as deer guts on a doorknob."

Singleton later talked Albritton into buying a paper up in New Jersey, the Paterson News, and making him publisher. Burgin was sent to edit the paper. "I was livid," he says. "I wanted to keep playing in Washington. Not only was I shipped out, but my boss was the guy I'd showed around the place. What a blow."

After one year at the News, Burgin caught wind that the Chicago Tribune Co. was looking for an editor for its South Bay papers, the Redwood City Tribune and the Palo Alto Times. He jumped at the chance to get back to the Bay Area. Burgin merged the two papers, upping the total complement of staffers from 65 to more than 100; the combined paper was dubbed the Peninsula Times Tribune.

Burgin would face his share of painful downsizing in the years to come. But as long as he was at the Tribune Co., he had all the money he wanted to spend. By all accounts, his eight years with Tribune subsidiaries were the best of his career.

At the Times Tribune, Burgin eagerly focused his resources on the big stories of the day. When Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White, Burgin sent everyone. "I had the food and fashion editor up there," he says. When Jonestown rocked San Francisco anew, he sent a reporter to Guyana to cover the catastrophe.

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