I left my heart on Phoenix Street, and now it’s broken.
By now most of you have undoubtedly heard, but late Thursday night, Judi Burns, the Index-Journal’s longtime, beloved publisher, died at the age of 72. She was, without hyperbole, the soul of this paper. She was its champion, its flag-bearer, its defender. It belonged to her, and so did we, the legions of ink-stained wretches who owed their careers and professional reputations to her.
It is a loss so complete, and so profound, that I can hardly bear it. Judith Metts Mundy Burns was an American original, and a daughter of Greenwood, and there will not soon be another like her.
I’ve been fortunate to be associated with the Index-Journal for the last 15 years. In fact, Aug. 24 will mark 15 years, exactly. I was there at the Phoenix Street office for 10 years full time, and have been a contributing columnist for the last five. During the course of that decade and a half, I’ve come to regard Judi as something of a second mother. In fact, former Associate Editor Scott J. Bryan and I used to call her “Momma,” a nickname she never put up too much of a fuss about.
To be certain, the respect I had for her as the paper’s publisher was unimpeachable. She was the boss and, ultimately, the buck stopped with her. We all knew that. Seldom — very seldom — was the occasion when she would come into the newsroom and get involved in editorial business. She trusted her editors and reporters steadfastly. But there were times when she would come over and tell us about something she had heard in the community, or a trend she saw developing, and she would encourage us to look into it. A bit of conversation would inevitably follow, and eventually she’d say, “I think I’d like to see a story about that.” And that would be the end of the conversation.
But our kinship would grow beyond simply that of a writer and a publisher. She was my friend — my dear friend — and we had countless conversations about our common interests. We bonded over the South Carolina Gamecocks and memories of old Lewis Grizzard columns (she loved the ones about Lewis’ dog, Catfish) and a shared guilty pleasure affinity for Miss Ann’s fried chicken.
For years I had a running joke in my column that Judi had discovered me on the side of the road eating kudzu and, feeling sorry for me, decided to take me in and give me a job. The joke would eventually be on me, however, as she later fixed a kudzu quiche, and insisted I give it a try. I’ll be honest, it was quite tasty.
It was always the little things with Judi. She made a chicken spaghetti and sent it to our house in the days after my daughter was born. When my grandmother died earlier this year, which was an incredibly trying time, one of the very first notes I received was from Judi.
“I’m so sorry about your grandmama,” she wrote. “I know how special she was to you. Much love to you at this time, and always.”
She always knew just what to say, and when to say it.
And we had a blast. She figured out that, if there was one person who might have been crazier about the Gamecocks than she was, it was me. And so we sat together at scores of Carolina football games, in section 306 on the west side of Williams-Brice Stadium. Judi was the consummate Southern lady, but, Lord, she could make a ruckus when the Gamecocks were on defense.
Here’s the thing: All I ever wanted to do was make Judi Burns proud. She gave me so much, and I wanted her to know I didn’t take it for granted.
She helped give me a professional identity. She provided me the vessel I used to find my journalistic voice. And she gave me a pathway to you, the readers of the Index-Journal. And here we’ve been keeping company in the pages of this paper, all these years.
My life was made immeasurably better because I went to work for Judi at 610 Phoenix St. in Greenwood, South Carolina. I would not be who I am without her, and it’s just that simple.
Judith Metts Mundy Burns was an effortlessly classy, elegant, beautiful Southern woman, filled with wisdom and grace and generosity and fire. Her passing unquestionably leaves a hole in Greenwood’s heart, and in mine, and it’s a wound that won’t soon be mended.
And so, this is goodbye, Judi, at least for now. I’ll think of you this football season, when the evening air finally grows a bit colder, and every time I pass that old building on Phoenix Street.
I hope we’ll meet again, my friend.
Chris Trainor is a contributing columnist for the Index-Journal. Contact him at ChrisTrainorSC@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisTrainorSC. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.