Judi Burns wore many hats at the Index-Journal beyond serving as president and publisher for more than two decades.
The role that perhaps best suited the newspaper’s matriarch, who died on Thursday at age 72, was that of mother.
She wasn’t just a mom to her three daughters and fellow The Index-Journal Co. shareholders — Alison Burns-Parham, St. Claire Donaghy and Mundy Price — but also to the dozens of newspaper employees who affectionately referred to her as “Momma.”
She could nurture staff members in one moment and tell them how they were living their lives wrong the next.
One time, she even made Chris Trainor eat his greens.
The longtime columnist and former Index-Journal staff writer was once fond of joking that he was discovered “eating kudzu on the side of the road.”
Her husband, Jimmy, had prodded Trainor to eat his vegetables during a South Carolina Press Association banquet, and after seeing his latest reference to the plant, Burns decided there was no better way to get the writer to eat his greens — and words — than to cook for him the vine that ate the South.
“And you ARE going to eat it,” Trainor recalled her saying in a 2012 column.
She prepared a dish that crossed a quiche and a jalapeño popper, with a healthy helping of kudzu.
“It was delicious,” he wrote.
Growing up Greenwood
Burns grew up on East Henrietta Avenue with a host of similarly aged children, many of whom remain friends today.
Among them was June Todd, who recalled that the children were cared for by the mothers along the street — Burns affectionately called them Henrietta Hens. Burns and Todd, along with other graduates of Greenwood High Class of 1965, got into their share of mischief, not the least of which included when Billy Tinsley helped tie the girls to a tree in the Tinsley yard, proclaiming it Joan of Arc Day. Fortunately, Burns’ father, Frank Mundy, pulled onto the street at lunchtime before anyone was harmed.
Or burned at the stake.
Todd said she and a handful of other Class of ’65 gals began having annual treks to the Burns home on Kiawah Island. They dubbed themselves the Kiawah Girls and enjoyed each other’s company for a week, which always included delicious servings of Burns’ fried okra.
Burns had appointed Todd “the General,” meaning it was up to her to organize the Kiawah Girls’ annual trip. On a recent trip to Greenwood to visit Burns in the hospital, Todd walked in and said, “Judi, you appointed me General about eight to 10 years ago, and I don’t take no for an answer.”
Burns raised her hand to her forehead and gave Todd a salute, bringing a smile to her longtime friend’s face.
Todd said while sharing the news of her friend’s passing with another friend, he told her that in the wake of hearing the news of a loved one’s or good friend’s death, if you see a cardinal, it’s a sign that all is well.
“Not 15 minutes later, as I was standing outside my house, a cardinal flew from across the street,” Todd said. “It flew by the right side of the house and then the left side.”
A newspaperwoman’s legacy
Burns led the Index-Journal when it brought back the Saturday edition after a nearly two-decade hiatus. She was at the helm when the publication changed from an afternoon to a morning newspaper. She had the reins while the Index installed a new press, replacing the 30-year-old machine installed while her father served as president and publisher.
“Judi never gave up trying new ideas but didn’t neglect the quality of the printed newspaper,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association. “She was committed to her newspaper and her community.”
Still, she remained modest about her role. When the Women’s Leadership Conference gave Burns the Trailblazer Award during a banquet in 2016, she asked: “What trail did I blaze?”
She told attendees her mother, Eleanor M. Mundy, was the trailblazer and Burns merely followed in her footsteps.
She didn’t mention that she was named South Carolina’s Young Woman of the Year for 1976, an honor she earned in part from the long list of civic engagement and accomplishments she’d already built.
A fierce supporter of journalism, she received a bachelor’s degree in the subject from the University of South Carolina and worked as a writer and features editor at her family’s newspaper before going into management. As publisher, she even spent a stint as president of the state press association in 2015. Her father served in that role 42 years earlier.
With Burns’ support, the newsroom flourished — bringing home more than 200 press awards this decade alone and successfully suing the state Department of Public Safety for the release of dashcam footage under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act.
“Judi had a soft voice and a polite demeanor that disguised a fierce commitment to the Index-Journal and the role of a free press in our democratic society,” said longtime press attorney Jay Bender, who represented the newspaper against Public Safety. “Even in a time of tight newspaper budgets, Judi was willing to fight in court to challenge instances of improper government secrecy. Her marching orders often were, ‘We can’t let them get away with that.’”
She took her role as owner of Greenwood’s daily newspaper seriously, describing it as “a privilege and a great responsibility” in 2006 when talking about the importance of keeping the family-owned publication in the hands of locals.
“She stood up for her newspaper’s values and the right of her readers to know what was going on in local government,” Rogers said.
Much as Burns grew up at the Index-Journal, two of her daughters have long worked at the family-owned publication: Price and Donaghy.
Before her death, Burns appointed Price as her successor. Price takes the helm as the newspaper’s president and publisher on the heels of the paper celebrating its 100th anniversary in February. Donaghy now serves as the paper’s vice president and secretary.
A Greenwood native, Burns was unapologetically Southern.
In a column published in 1978, the self-described Steel Magnolia wrote about the misperceptions outsiders had about the South — prejudices she encountered while skiing in Colorado.
Her thick, Southern drawl made her words nearly unintelligible to people in Denver, and the deliberate cadence of any lady reared below the Mason-Dixon line made some assume her wit, too, was slow.
“How surprised skeptics are to learn that a slow-talking gal from South Carolina graduated from college Phi Beta Kappa,” she quipped.
At the end of her trip, she was ready to return to magnolia trees and fried chicken.
“As we wing our way home, dreaming of southern pines and cornbread, we realize what we’ve known all the time,” she wrote, “that the ultimate thrill in life is living where folks talk with a southern drawl, y’all.”